There is a recognizable value in democratic societies in having mechanisms by which the public can come together to discuss the issues of the day, to identify problems and propose solutions. Historically, the news media – print, radio, and television – has provided the spaces where competing narratives are publicly debated. Today, technology companies are the dominant curators of information and their engineering of a public sphere is significantly different than that of news media enterprises, even news media organizations who are beholden to state or corporate interests.
Can Facebook determine the outcome of the 2016 election? Can Google render unpopular perspectives invisible? How are relationships between powerful actors, governments, and corporations shaping what “we” see or don’t see online? The cultural, economic, political, and moral pressures that prevent these companies from taking these actions are not inscribed in global law or limited by technology. Around the world, we see a variety of cases where political actors actively manipulate technology for their own gain, through censorship, disinformation, and authoritarian control. Even in the United States, where free speech theoretically reigns, the government is increasingly pressuring technology companies to algorithmically identify terrorists, for example, and provide backdoors for their manipulation.
The goal of this project is to map how the public sphere is currently understood, controlled, and manipulated in order to spark a richer conversation about what interventions should be considered to support the ideal of an informed and engaged citizenry. This project is also a mapping of existing concerns and research that is already underway in this field and has enlisted the advice and aid of a group of scholars who are engaged in this area.
On February 26, 2016, Data & Society held a workshop, Who Controls the Public Sphere in an Era of Algorithms? to drill into the assumptions, values, and tensions at the core of growing concerns about the control and shaping of the public sphere in an era of algorithms. Download workshop notes and more here.
Algorithms and Publics began with a set of case studies which explored how algorithmic media is shaping the public sphere across a variety of dimensions, including the changing role of the journalism industry, the use of algorithms for censorship or international compliance, how algorithms are functioning within foreign policy aims, digital gerrymandering, the spread of misinformation, and more. Download Case Studies here.
Finally, two white papers have been published online as part of this project. The first is an historical take on the role media has played within democracy. The second white paper presents issues emerging in the era of algorithms, and highlights existing concerns and tensions about the changing media ecosystem and its effect on democratic and public life.
Algorithms and Publics is supported by Open Society Foundations and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Social network analysis image, above, courtesy of Vanessa Kitzie.
For more information about this initiative, email [email protected]