Speaking at a conference Munich earlier this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on large Internet platforms to disclose their algorithms to the public. Although she did not specify any platforms by name, its likely that Google and Facebook are among the platforms she is referring to. At the conference, she stated,”These algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to to a distortion of our perception, they narrow our breadth of information.” She also stated that, “the algorithms must be made public,” so citizens can be informed of what is influencing their behavior.
Merkel is concerned with the increasing polarization of politics, which some have attributed to social media. The algorithms on many platforms tend to show people viewpoints that they already agree with and filter out viewpoints they disagree with. “That is a development that we need to pay careful attention to,” she stated while stressing that its essential to the democratic process that citizens are able to confront opposing ideas and opinions. “The big internet platforms, via their algorithms, have become an eye of a needle which diverse media must pass through,” she added.
Merkel is not the first person to raise concerns about this issue. Earlier in the month, Caleb Gardner, former social media manager to President Barack Obama, gave a speech at Northwestern University which mentions this topic. “More likely than not, you get your news from Facebook. Forty-four percent of US adults get news on the site, and 61 percent of millennials get their news from Facebook. If that doesn’t frighten you, you don’t know enough about Facebook’s algorithm,” he said, “If you have a parent who’s a Trump supporter, they are seeing a completely different set of news items than you are.”
Back in May, Zuckerberg dismissed similar concerns, and argued that social media is more diverse than traditional media. “Facebook is actually, and social media in general, are the most diverse forms of media that are out there,” he stated. In response to Merkel’s speech, both Facebook and Google have spoken to the German newspaper Der Speigel, saying that they already tell the public a lot about how their algorithms work.
Currently, a group of German politicians from multiple parties are investigating the algorithms of many online platforms. Later this year, they will submit the results of their investigation to the EU’s digital commissioner Gunther Oettinger. Oettinger told Der Speigel that, “The chancellor has touched on an important issue.”
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