Living in a filter bubble

The 23rd Wirtschaftsforum last week was all about personalised contents on the internet

Hochkarätiges Podium beim 23. Wirtschaftsforum (von links nach rechts): Gerhard Märtterer, Holger Geißler, Dr. Andrea Despot, Marc Biadacz, Ann Cathrin Riedel, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schweiger
Hochkarätiges Podium beim 23. Wirtschaftsforum (von links nach rechts) / Top-class panel at the 23rd Wirtschaftsforum (from left to right): Gerhard Märtterer, Holger Geißler, Dr. Andrea Despot, Marc Biadacz, Ann Cathrin Riedel, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schweiger

Lena Jauernig

At the 23rd Wirtschaftsforum (“Economic Forum”) last week five top-class experts from science, industry and politics discussed how personalised contents on the internet affect society. The public panel discussion was organised by students from ESB Business School.  

It is true that we live in an era which is inundated with digital information but we do not all have the same information. The information each individual gets to see on the web is decided not only by us but also by the algorithms of social networks such as Google and Facebook. What impact do personalised contents on the web have? Five top-class experts discussed this last week in the assembly hall of Reutlingen University.  

“Filter bubble – I’ll make you the world the way you want it“ was the motto of the 23rd Wirtschaftsforum (“Economic Forum”). This topic, which was chosen by the students in the organisation team for the public panel discussion, catches the spirit of the age perfectly. The event was well attended and moderator Dr Andrea Despot, Director of the European Academy in Berlin, involved the audience right at the beginning with an online vote: 48 percent of the audience answered the question “Do you feel like you are stuck in a filter bubble?” with “Yes”. 

People tend to use media contents that match their own convictions. “That was the case even before the emergence of the internet“, Professor Dr Wolfgang Schweiger, University of Hohenheim, pointed out: Some people read the FAZ newspaper, others the Süddeutsche Zeitung. But the communication scientist added a word of warning: “The personalisation of contents was far less widespread. The filter bubble in the internet reinforces extremist opinions."

“Filters can also be helpful“, Holger Geißler, former board member of YouGov Germany, commented. The amount of information on the web is so huge that we are in need of guidance. The crucial question for Geißler: “Am I aware of being in a filter bubble and do I know how to get out of the bubble?”  

So do we simply need more media literacy? Media education is important, said Ann Cathrin Riedel, chairwoman of LOAD e.V., the association for a liberal internet policy. She went on to stress that the digital age also offers opportunities: “The Internet leads us into a filter bubble, but it also offers us the chance to step out of the filter bubble of real life”. The internet provides access to new topics and it’s only thanks to social media, Riedel continued, that debates such as “MeToo” have found their way into society as a whole. She advised politicians to actively use social media so as to inform people at first hand about difficult issues.    

Social media, a mouthpiece for everyone? Gerhard Märtterer, founder of AlphaPicture, was also critical: “These days anyone can bellow out their opinion without a filter and needn’t even look their counterpart in the face.  This can cause discussions to escalate.“

The CDU member of the Bundestag, Marc Biadacz, also reported about hate comments. He nevertheless continues to use social media very actively and emphasised yesterday: “’Digitisation is a fixed part of our everyday life.” Does the filter bubble manipulate the way we form opinions, is our democracy at risk? Biadacz called on Facebook and other social media to take responsibility and stand up for democracy. Asked about the role of politics, he answered: “The state must not act as a censor. But it has a duty to provide protection, for example when it comes to data.”

When the evening came to a close, the audience went home with a lot of new issues to think about. The student organisers of the Wirtschaftsforum could be satisfied with their work: a full house, good organisation and a multifaceted debate.  

About the Wirtschaftsforum: Public panel discussions about current topics from industry, politics and society were started in autumn 1996 by students from ESB Business School and take place once a year. The Wirtschaftsforum in 2019 was organised by Thimon Bernhardt, Celine Doll, Nadja Hansmann, Anna Herold, Miriam Limbeck and Alexandra Knapheide. Guests were: Marc Biadacz (CDU member of the Bundestag), Holger Geißler (Member of the management board DCORE GmbH and CMO at DataLion, member of the board at YouGov Germany), Gerhard Märtterer (founder of AlphaPicture, a cloud service for e-marketers and digital printers), Ann Cathrin Riedel (founder of the UP DIGITAL MEDIA agency and chairwoman at LOAD e.V. – association for liberal internet policy), Professor Dr Wolfgang Schweiger (Head of “Communication Science esp. interactive media and online communication”, (University of Hohenheim). The discussion was moderated by Dr Andrea Despot, Director of the European Academy in Berlin. The Wirtschaftsforum took place as part of the extracurricular studies of Reutlingen University.