Filter bubbles: Why don’t we let them burst, finally!

All of us like to believe in good stories, including journalists. One of these stories, which is enjoying everlasting popularity, is that of filter bubbles and echo chambers into which social networks drive us and which we can’t escape. According to Adrian Lobe, as he wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday, social media manipulate users by their “like” machinery and condition them through reward mechanisms in order to keep them on the platform for as long as possible. The alleged means of those mechanisms: Always offering more of the same to users, reinforcing their views or inclinations.

If you eat the same soup every day, you’ll begin to love it, Martin Walser once wrote. If you use social networks, you’ll always get what you already know, only a little more pointedly each time due to the sophisticated recommendation systems, Adrian Lobe says. In the end, many people would live in filter bubbles, the critical public would suffer and the corporations would benefit from “the fact that the axe is put on the roots of democracy”. Really, not a bad story. However, it’s not true.

On the same Monday we read at trade journal “werben & verkaufen”: “Media filter bubbles are overrated”. The paper reports on a recent study by political scientist Matt Grossmann on behalf of the Knight Foundation. The study concludes that far fewer US citizens than assumed actually live in a media filter bubble, not even many of those who claim to do so. And, in fact, the more one investigates the alleged filter bubble phenomenon, the more sources emerge that show that there is no scientific evidence for its existence. This applies not only to the USA, but also to Germany. Birgit Stark from the University of Mainz, for example, writes that the conditions for filter bubbles are not met for broad audiences. And she is by no means the only one who comes to such a conclusion.

Sealing off and polarization effects commonly associated with filter bubbles, can sometimes be observed only among small groups on the political fringes of society who voluntarily surround themselves with like-minded people in “echo chambers”. The vast majority on the other hand, obtain information through various sources rather than exclusively through social media. Internet users draw on even more sources of information than the offliners of the population. So there is a lot to be said for bursting the filter bubbles and turning to new stories that are closer to reality. This includes, for example, the question of how interested circles can be prevented from abusing the social media in a strategic manner because they want to disintegrate society. Or the question of how to make the public even more aware that the most reliable fact-checking is done by journalists who have learned their trade. At any rate, the democratic public sphere is robust enough for honest discussion.