Behind the Informed Citizen: Exploring the Role of Algorithms Within the News Distribution Process
The Internet has changed not only the way we communicate, but also the way we receive and distribute news. In recent decades, the mass media system has been the main source of news production and distribution. Today, because of easy-to-use Internet-based applications, nearly every Internet user is a potential broadcaster. Content, generated by the user, can be published to its audience directly. This ongoing transformation and its social consequences have been discussed extensively, particularly in terms of strengthening democracy and citizen participation. However, these discourses often have the underlying implication that the more information you have access to, the better. But, on the flip side, the more information is produced, the harder it becomes to find relevant information. This PhD’s starting point is that “information does not exist, only informed people exist” (Balnaves/Willson 2011: 8). This is relevant because humans play an active role in being informed. In order to do so, people use more and more alternative online sources, e.g. social networks. But time and space do not limit the virtual world in the same way that print media do. This leads to an overabundance of information, which needs to be dealt with. Historically, culture, time and space have worked as filter systems and eliminated information. However, on the Internet, we have access to all kinds of information and need to filter ourselves. But because our resources are limited, software is often used for pre-selection. For example, aggregation software is used to organise and prioritise information from different sources. Viewed broadly, the prominent way of dealing with algorithms is from a techno-centric perspective (“What the internet is hiding from you”, Pariser 2011). But this perspective objectifies software and ignores how software is bound up with human influences, and hence produces technologically deterministic claims about the relationship of algorithmic selection and the users. This PhD seeks a different approach and studies algorithms as social systems. Within three case studies, news aggregation software will be analysed through the lenses of the ICT specialists, the users and the algorithms. The goal of this PhD is to develop a theoretical framework that makes algorithms as social systems accessible to further research.