“This is our duty to inform ourselves across the board”

Article  by  François QUINTON  •  Published 18.11.2016  •  Updated 17.11.2016
Ann Mettler
“Filter Bubble”, “post-truth politics”… Interview with Ann Mettler, head of European Political Strategy Centre.

Ann Mettler is Head of the European Political Strategy Centre, the in-house think tank of the European Commission. We met her during the Web Summit 2016, where she was invited to talk about “The filter bubble versus democracy”.
According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016, two-third of people on Facebook use it for news. It is something massive, as well as growing. How do you consider the role played by social networks such as Facebook regarding information and mobilization of citizens?

Ann Mettler :  If we no longer get a plethora of views via the news, we may have a problem with democracy  First of all I cannot speak officially for the European Commission. I run the in-house think tank, and as such I have a mandate to think a little bit outside the box, to think ahead. So to be clear, nothing I say is an official position of the EC.
That being said, I think this is a trend that one must pay attention to. There was a lot of discussion here at the Web Summit around the “filter bubble”, meaning essentially receiving only news that interest us and essentially confirm our own beliefs and sometimes biases and what impact it has on democracy, because democracy thrives on dialogue, on respecting different points of views. So, if we no longer get a plethora of views via the news, we may have a problem with democracy.
What is, according to you, the main current issue: the “filter bubble” or what Katherine Viner, from the Guardian, called the “post-truth politics”?

Ann Mettler : In democracy, decisions are often taken on evidence and based on facts. So if we live in a “post fact society”, some of our decisions may be driven primarily by emotions, by wanting to disrupt the establishment, and I think this can have very negative repercussions. I think that lot of people think that things can’t get worse that they currently are now, but I would challenge that and I believe that if we test the system too much and we challenge democracy too much, we may very well go into a world that is not as good as the one we live in today. It’s an accumulation of issues: you have the rise of populism, you have the rise of “post facts society” - where a part of the electorate is not convinced by facts any more.

Do you have any idea or proposal you would like to share?

Ann Mettler : I think that in democracy we need to have a broad understanding not only of our rights, but also of our responsibilities. First of all, this is our duty to inform ourselves across the board, including perhaps information that we don’t agree with, we need to be tolerant of other views, we need to seek a compromise. So there is really a responsibility incumbent on all of us, but I will also say that social media need to pay attention to this trend and need to analyze what is happening here and if there are ways to counteract the “filter bubble”.

There is another huge debate about the legal status of platforms. Google or Facebook for instance consider themselves as neutral and technical solutions, but they are more and more taking decisions that influence the editorial. Do you think they should be considered as neutral platforms, or as editor? Or something in between?

Ann Mettler : Traditionally, social media has not felt much responsibility for editorial functions. But as I said before, in light of some developments we are seeing now, one needs to reflect on some of this, especially when it comes to hate speech. However I would also like to say social media has on balance been a boon for democracy –  to be able to get more information than ever before and for average citizens to be able to express their views. So it’s a very fine balance and we must not overreact. That is why the first step for me would be to better understand the phenomenon and to raise awareness. To first study and better understand before acting.

Photo credit :
Ina Global

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