While Facebook and Google have been repeatedly accused of media bias and manipulating public opinion, especially during the US presidential campaign, an unexpected attack on the two media giants came today not from the US but from Germany, when Chancellor Angela Merkel launched a full-on attack at the two companies, accusing them of “narrowing perspective,” and demanding they disclose their privately-developed algorithms. Merkel previously blamed social media for anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise of the far right.
“The algorithms must be made public, so that one can inform oneself as an interested citizen on questions like: what influences my behavior on the internet and that of others?” said Merkel during a media conference in Berlin on Tuesday cited by RT.
What she said next echoed similar complaints lobbed at the media giants by those considered less than mainstream: “These algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception, they narrow our breadth of information.”
In a tech-driven world, Google uses an algorithm to decide which search results are first shown to a user (and which are not, for example when one searches about Hillary’s health), while Facebook arranges the order of the news feed, and decides to include certain posts from a user’s liked pages and friends, at the expense of others. Both sites also promote links to news articles, often based on a user’s own media interests.
However, it is still a human’s job to write and calibrate these algorithms which are at the core of the intellectual property of any social media or search website, and comprise some of the most highly-protected trade secrets in the world, potentially worth billions. No internet giant has ever revealed its inner workings.
Merkel did not specifically name Facebook, Google or Twitter, but implied that the large platforms are creating “bubbles” of self-reinforcing views, and squeezing out smaller news providers. One could also call it propaganda.
“The big internet platforms, via their algorithms, have become an eye of a needle which diverse media must pass through to reach users,” warned Merkel. “This is a development that we need to pay careful attention to.” In their defense, Google and Facebooks have retorted that the so-called social media bubble is largely a “myth”, and that online users have a wider access to differing views than under a pre-internet model, where most news would be acquired from just a handful of newspapers and one or two TV channels.
This is not the first attack on social media by Merkel and her Grand Coalition government. Curious, while the German politician advocates diversity of views, she has previously accused it of perpetrating opinions that are most at odds with those of the establishment and traditional media.
In other words, instead of seeking to cripple the informational monopoly of Facebook and Google, Merkel was merely pursuing her own, ulterior motives. Last month, the chancellor accused AfD, the recently-established anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim party, which receives overwhelmingly negative coverage in most newspapers, of “spreading their lies” through social media, as it achieves breakthroughs in regional elections around the country.
As RT adds, a year ago, at the height of the refugee influx into the country, Merkel, who was first elected in 2005, was caught on a hot mic personally pressing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to clamp down on anti-migrant posts during a UN session in New York. Then, several weeks ago, the leader of Merkel’s parliamentary CDU faction, Volker Kauder, said that social media should be fined €50,000 for failing to remove “hate speech,” saying that a “Sword of Damocles” has to hang over social media. Kauder also called for warnings, similar to those on cigarette packs or before entering pornographic websites, to be given to those about to go on social media.
In other words, the Germans want to tackle the biased information and “distorted perceptions” with state censorship. Somehow that strikes us as ironic.
In the end, it turns out Merkel’s mini crusafe is nothing more than an attempt at scapegoating her own immigration policy failures on the web giants. Justice Minister Heiko Maas – who said that there had been a 77 percent increase in hate crimes following the arrival of 900,000 asylum seekers – has given internet media companies until February next year to comply with EU directives on xenophobia and racism, or face legal action.
More than anything, this little anecdote reveals that the greatest weapon in a “developed society’s” arsenal remains information, and the fight is to control not just the content, but more importantly, the distribution. Incidentally, if it does come to a showdown between a sovereign nation and an internet media giant, our money will always be on the latter.