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Form my opinion

What about the diversity of opinion in digital media? Who has the power of opinion and how can it be measured? An interview with communication scientist Carsten Reinemann.

© Andreas Gebert / StMUK/BLZ

Professor Carsten Reinemann from the Department of Media and Communication at Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich is the spokesperson for the project:

Carsten Reinemann talks about new channels and players in the digital age, and how users get overloaded. The interview starts a series in which the research topics at bidt will be featured.

What about the diversity of opinion on the internet? Who has the power of opinion?

We come from a time when the traditional media were the opinion-formers. They determined what was discussed and which facts played a role in the public debate. This relatively manageable situation changed with the advent of the Internet and search engines like Google, which have a very strong market position, and then again almost explosively with social media. Today, there is a multitude of small and large players on the web that are at least challenging the old monopoly of traditional media.

On the one hand, data and many individual studies show that most people still get their news from traditional media and that there is a relatively large consensus among those who get their information online – for example, when asked about the relevance of certain topics. However, as my colleague Birgit Stark, who is also involved in the project, has shown, there is evidence that the two groups differ in how they perceive the climate of opinion on certain issues. This could indicate that different images of reality are being created. This could, for example, contribute to people feeling that they are in the majority when they are not. In addition, the way young people use the media is changing dramatically.

Children today are growing up with their own access to information that did not exist before. They have become a target group for many new players.

Prof. Dr. Carsten Reinemann To the profile

What does that mean?

Media socialisation is very different today. Children are growing up with YouTube channels and videos on platforms like TikTok, giving them access to information that did not exist in the past. They have become a target group for many new players. This brings with it certain dangers. One example is the recent video in which an influencer tried to explain the conflict between the US and Iran by talking about a third world war. Some children who saw it were unsettled and afraid that it would break out.

Many of the new channels may not be well known to the general public. But through the new networking structures on the Internet, and also through traditional media picking up this content, they have the potential to influence opinions and also to create incredible dynamics. This was the case with the furore over the song containing the word “environmental sow”, which probably caused considerable damage to WDR and was fuelled by a well-coordinated social media campaign. But this also applies to the possible covert interference by foreign actors. There is a lot of disinformation on the internet. That is why it is important for us as a society to ask ourselves: What does the rapid change in the media sector mean for our media order? And what do we want democratic opinion-forming to look like?

Are users, therefore, quickly falling prey to a fallacy if they believe that they can inform themselves objectively via digital media?

It depends on their sources: You must know who is behind the news and information. This is just as true with comments: Are they original or part of a campaign, i.e. controlled, or are coming from they fake accounts or bots?

Ultimately, it is about social inclusion and preventing polarisation.

Prof. Dr. Carsten Reinemann To the profile

It takes a lot of knowledge to always keep an eye on this and to assess it correctly.

In a way, it’s too much for the user. You can’t expect anyone to use their media in a very thoughtful and source-critical way all the time. That is why the basic idea in designing the media system is that the framework conditions for a diverse formation of public opinion must be created on the provider side. People are wired in such a way that they don’t necessarily like to deal with opposing views and don’t want to go to great lengths to form an opinion. It still makes sense to organise certain parts of the media world in such a way that there is a certain amount of diversity even within individual offerings and that certain standards are adhered to.

What can happen when this is not the case can be seen in the US over the last 20 to 30 years, since the so-called Fairness Doctrine for television and radio stations fell. Since then, it has been possible to create extremely biased political news channels. This is one of the factors that has led to incredible social polarisation in the US. This also shows that these issues are not just about the Internet, but about media regulation. Economically, it is incredibly profitable to produce extremely one-sided media with a specific political orientation. So you have to be careful not to create silos of opinion. Ultimately, it’s about social inclusion and preventing polarisation when certain groups connected through online channels cut themselves off from the rest of society.

Online and offline, digital and non-digital worlds are no longer distinguishable.

Prof. Dr. Carsten Reinemann To the profile

One gets the impression that there are always new buzzwords for what happens on the net: Hate speech, fake news, deep fakes – what’s next, I wonder?

These hypes are a classic media phenomenon. You also have to be careful not to transfer things too quickly from the US to Germany, for example, because the media system is completely different. But even we scientists are not immune to jumping on the bandwagon and perhaps forgetting what constancy is. On the other hand, recent developments in the course of digitalisation force us to rethink how we have viewed the power of opinion in broadcasting. Online and offline, digital and non-digital worlds are no longer distinguishable; this is also one of the considerations of our project.

What does the speed at which digital media are developing mean for research?

Research is influenced by several dynamics. One of these dynamics results from the fact that new offers for new target groups are constantly appearing and spreading rapidly. Another is that social media companies sometimes change their algorithms and rules. Facebook, for example, fundamentally changed its algorithm in 2017/18 to reflect less content from media and other companies in news feeds. This has a direct impact on Facebook’s relevance in shaping public opinion, as the private becomes more prominent. Then there is the dynamic nature of certain events, and the incredible speed at which information spreads online: Here, research depends on getting the data from the providers. Of course, access to data is essential if you want to understand what is happening.

How are you proceeding in the bidt project?

There are three sub-projects. The first is to create a kind of map of online services, individual actors, and social media accounts relevant to the political debate. We will systematise them, measure their reach and analyse their content. The power of a medium to sway opinion does not only depend on its reach but also on how diverse it is or whether certain positions are taken offensively. The aim is to understand how one-sided and extreme opinions are in online channels.

The results will gradually feed into the other two projects. Simon Hegelich will use the latest data analysis and machine learning approaches to map communicative resonance in social media: How do certain actors relate to each other, and what conclusions can be drawn about their potential to influence public opinion? Birgit Stark will focus on the diversity of political information, issues and opinions in social media. Essentially, it’s a question of whether you get the same breadth of opinion through social media as you do through traditional media. After all, different sources do not protect against uniformity of content.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in the digitalisation of media?

I’ll mention two: finding the balance between ensuring the freedom to harness the potential of digitalisation and regulating new technological developments in a way that serves the good of society.

The second challenge is digital education: making our schools, teachers, and students fit for the digital world. And this is not simply about how to program a website, but also about understanding information: am I aware of the algorithmic control of content, the psychological tricks used by applications, and the fact that I am sometimes confronted with online actors who do not have the common good at heart, but who have other interests?