Algorithmic News Feeds and Democracy

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Project Summary

The development of social media platforms expanded the role of algorithms to news provision and advertisement. Current research underlines some of the dangers resulting from such technologies, ranging from the spread of disinformation and misinformation, to the abuse of targeted advertising for voter suppression and negative political campaigning. Such concerns are extremely serious and point to a direct threat to democratic institutions. Current research is limited in fully studying the impact of social media technologies on democracy by two main factors: data availability, as private companies are unwilling to share reports of their usage with researchers, and technological access, as platforms do not allow academic experimenters to run studies on them.

Our research project overcomes both these difficulties by taking advantage of a custom-developed news feed app, Dossier, that has been already tested and piloted, and implement a series of randomized controlled trials on the design of algorithms news feeds to evaluate their impact on media diets, and with it the full gamut of politically relevant variables such as political knowledge, issue valence, party polarization and preferences. Our project is the first to date to tackle the issues of content moderation online with an approach uniquely set up to develop a full mapping from algorithmic news feeds to democratic outcomes.

The design of news feed algorithms is potentially very complex, and it is described by many, including actors in social media companies, as a black-box. Our methods mix a descriptive and an experimental approach that will result in scenarios and policy recommendations. Our study will first investigate the impact of present algorithmic personalized news feeds on democratic variables by mimicking their set up, and then explore how to design news feeds in ways that strengthen democracy, such as to achieve better political knowledge, less issue polarization and more political participation.

The results from our project will provide unprecedented clarity on the impact and potential that news feed technologies, and with them social media, have on the digital public sphere and democracy. Armed by our conclusions, policy-makers will be able to design and enforce policy guidelines that regulate the impact of technology with renewed clarity and understanding, including ways to address content moderation, access to information and combating disinformation online.


More information follows.