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How algorithmic processes impact social discourse

More than 57 percent of Internet users in Germany use search engines and social networks among other media to keep up with current events. In the United States, 44 percent of adults regularly use Facebook as a news source. The public sphere as we know it is thus being redefined – now that algorithmic processes and psychological factors are playing a role in what we consider news and how we engage with it. A new working paper examines what we know about this transformation – and how it can be used to increase social participation.

Algorithmic decision-making (ADM) processes are influencing many people's ability to participate in the public discourse. Software, for example, personalizes online search results and the news stream in social networks. The working paper Digitale Öffentlichkeit (The Digital Public) describes the impact this structural change in public life is having by examining three key issues affecting public discourse in the digital age:

1.) Media transformation: How is public discourse changing because of the new digital platforms through which many people now access socially relevant information?

When all age groups are considered, intermediaries driven by ADM processes, such as Google and Facebook, have a large but not a defining influence on how public opinion is formed, compared to editorially driven media such as television. These intermediaries judge the relevance of content based on the public's immediate reaction to a much greater degree than traditional media do. Machines are now selecting the news people see, which means media offerings are becoming increasingly personalized.

2.) Social consequences: In terms of quality and diversity, is the information assembled by machines suitable for making democratic decisions and does it increase opportunities for participation?

Not only are ADM processes characteristic of the structural changes taking place in the public sphere, so are the user reactions that the changes are giving rise to. If these reactions are impulsive they can limit the quality of the public discourse – and who participates in it. Traditional values such as truth, diversity and social integration could be cast aside if algorithms replace editorial media in deciding which news we get to see.

3.) Solutions: Which approaches could conceivably be used to make the new digital platforms more inclusive when it comes to participation?

If the new algorithmic tools for disseminating news are to have a positive impact on society, the following changes are required: People must be made more aware of the structural transformation taking place in public discourse; external researchers must be given the opportunity to examine and evaluate algorithmic processes; algorithmic processes must become more diverse, for example by having the media and the operators of algorithmic platforms develop common standards, or by having others develop standards for them.

The working paper is part of a larger exploration of "Participation in the Age of Algorithms and Big Data." The following papers have already been published:
When Machines Judge People, an analysis of international examples of algorithmic decision-making processes and the discernible opportunities, risks and required responses.

Calculated Participation, a tool for evaluating and comparing the potential impact of algorithmic processes on opportunities for social participation.