The Algorithms and Publics project at Data & Society maps 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.
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 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.
Now closed as an active research track, the Algorithms and Publics body of work remains as a vivid map of existing concerns and research already underway in this field, as enriched by the advice and aid of external scholars.
The Algorithms and Publics project was supported by Open Society Foundations and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.