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@WAN_Medialex coverage of Web Summit: inside the filter bubble

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@WAN_Medialex coverage of Web Summit: inside the filter bubble

The topic of the first session of the stream Future Societies at Web Summit  was explored by Vox only last week with an article whose headline says it all: "How social media creates angry, poorly informed partisans”. On October 25 at a media conference, Angela Merkel called for algorithms to become more transparent to avoid the current distortions of perceptions and debate, as the Guardian reports.
Charles Arthur from the Guardian moved from the same premise when he asked the question that opened the session: what is the effect on democracy of the fact that search engines and social media tend to feed back to users ideas that they already agree with?   
Gary Marcus, from Geometric intelligence gave an evolutionary - and ironical - explanation to the tendency of people to refrain investigating points of view they repel: "we share our genoma with apes and bacteria: nothing in our evolution made us information processors, and we are driven mostly by short term needs”. Discounting the information that is opposite to our beliefs comes as natural as our tendency to look for confirmation.  
Ann Mettler, Head of European Political Strategy Centre (the in-house think tank of the EU Commission) and ex World Economic Forum Director for Europe noted that "the industrial age was about standardisation, the digital age is about customisation". This translates into an objective problem when it comes to today’s information world, where echo centres translate into the perpetual strengthening of biases and beliefs.
Before the advent of social media newspapers were the ones responsible of fact checking and of making decisions on what was newsworthy. She added that the absence of “mediators” in social media, and the fact that nowadays success depends on shares, not accuracy or precision, results in a wealth of lies and rumours dressed up as news.  
Gary Marcus agreed and wished that search engines had an educational component, an automated system that would detect bias and alert the users of the dangers hidden in their pattern. Democracy is about dialogue and compromise and people need to appreciate both the rights that come with it, and the responsibilities. 
Charles Arthur considered that the problem of the echo chambers caught everybody - possibly also search engines and social media - by surprise particularly around Brexit and the US election. He asked to his panel if in four years time, when the UK will not be a member of the EU and the US will have new presidential elections, the filter bubble will have been addressed and burst? 
In the opinion of Gary Marcus the problem is far from being easily fixed, considering that people do not appear to really care, comfortable as they are right now in the bubble.  Both Gary and Ann Mettler added that something would need to go “horribly wrong” in the democratic process for a solution to become felt as urgent globally. 
The session closed with a shoutout to Mike Schroepfer from Facebook, recognised in the audience: in the words of the panel “you and Google should fix the bubble!"
For live updates from Web Summit, follow @E_Perotti & @WAN_MediaLex.


Elena Perotti's picture

Elena Perotti


2016-11-08 19:03

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