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Who Controls the Public Sphere in an Era of Algorithms? Questions and Assumptions

In this background primer, D&S Research Analyst Laura Reed and D&S Founder danah boyd situate the current debate around the role of technology in the public sphere within a historical context. They identify and tease out some of the underlying values, biases, and assumptions present in the current debate surrounding the relationship between media and democracy, and connect them to existing scholarship within media history that is working to understand the organizational, institutional, social, political, and economic factors affecting the flow of news and information. They also identify a set of key questions to keep in mind as the conversation around technology and the public sphere evolves.

Algorithms play an increasingly significant role in shaping the digital news and information landscape, and there is growing concern about the potential negative impact that algorithms might have on public discourse. Examples of algorithmic biases and increasingly curated news feeds call into question the degree to which individuals have equal access to the means of producing, disseminating, and accessing information online. At the same time, these debates about the relationship between media, democracy, and publics are not new, and linking those debates to these emerging conversations about algorithms can help clarify the underlying assumptions and expectations. What do we want algorithms to do in an era of personalization? What does a successful algorithm look like? What form does an ideal public sphere take in the digital age? In asking these and other questions, we seek to highlight what’s at stake in the conversation about algorithms and publics moving forward.