Vol. 2 No. 2 (2022) - Special Issue

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Special Issue: Democracy in Flux – Order, Dynamics and Voices in Digital Public Spheres


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    Following the Beaten Track?
    (Weizenbaum Institute, 2022) Schünemann, Wolf; König, Tim; Nijmeijer, Rolf
    Information operations, which are considered part of information warfare, feature prominently in contemporary debates on the quality of democracy, international relations, and the national security of highly connected democracies. However, the vectors of attack and success conditions for information warfare remain unclear, as well as the strategic motivations of malevolent actors. Alarmist voices in public debate and scholarly discourse often build their assumptions on atomistic and individualistic misconceptions of knowledge. In this paper, we introduce a perspective based on the sociology of knowledge. We utilize this framework with a mix of quantitative and qualitative text analysis methods and present a comparative study of news coverage during the 2019 European election campaigns in two countries, Germany and France. We contrast the news stream of RT (formerly Russia Today), an outlet widely perceived as a vehicle for Russian information operations, with two types of established media per case: quality press and tabloid. Results show that RT, while generally following the beaten track of public discourse, particularly emphasizes international affairs topics in its news coverage. For these subjects, we find divergent framing seeking to support Russian foreign interests in comparison with established news outlets.
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    Who Can Still Afford to Do Digital Activism?
    (Weizenbaum Institute, 2022) Pierri, Paola
    Digital activism is now considered a widespread form of activism. Studies on its impact and use have proliferated. Most research into this phenomenon has tended to analyze the impact of digital technologies on action and activism. In contrast, this study explores the role of organizations and organizational structures, focusing on internal processes and the functioning of digital campaigning. Based on ethnographic observation and interviews with staff of online campaigning organizations, this paper presents findings on how digital communication and its logic can affect the organization’s internal processes. The paper challenges two established ideas: a) the idea of de-materialization of organizational structures from digital activism; b) that digital platforms tend to support the dissemination of opinions of previously marginalized actors. My fieldwork’s findings demonstrate that the reality in both cases is far more nuanced, with significant identifiable inconsistencies. This research shows that organizations and organizational structures have not de-materialized and that the material conditions of digital activism are key to better understanding this phenomenon and new forms of inequality it might generate.
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    Content Moderation and the Quest for Democratic Legitimacy
    (Weizenbaum Institute, 2022) Fichtner, Laura
    The paper analyzes the public controversy incited by the introduction of the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) in Germany. This law obliges social media platforms to delete unlawful content from their sites and has received international attention as a regulatory blueprint for governing corporate content moderation. The paper describes different ways in which NetzDG was framed in German media reporting, which offered distinct assessments of whether the new law endangered or supported democratic principles and values. Major differences in the public controversy over NetzDG revolved around, for instance, what freedom of expression and the rule of law meant for content moderation and how NetzDG’s regulatory intervention would interact with platforms. The paper finds that a major point of contention thus concerned how to ground content moderation practices and policies in democratic legitimacy. Its analysis demonstrates that the governance of content moderation on social media platforms can open up a site for renegotiating democratic values and principles. As the NetzDG case shows, this can happen without substantively challenging existing laws but by raising the question of how to legitimately apply them to platforms. At stake in this controversy were the underlying logics by which to govern speech online. Different perspectives on this built on distinct understandings of democracy, attributing particular roles and responsibilities to platforms, state institutions, and users. Thus, the paper illuminates that the public controversy over NetzDG, and over the right way to uphold speech laws on platforms, concerned more fundamental questions about the shape of democracy and the distribution of power, agency, and responsibility.
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    The Emergence of Platform Regulation in the UK
    (Weizenbaum Institute, 2022) Kretschmer, Martin; Furgał, Ula; Schlesinger, Philip
    Online platforms have emerged as a new kind of regulatory object. In this article, we empirically map the emergence of the field of platform regulation in one country: the United Kingdom (UK). We focus on the 18-month period between September 2018 and February 2020 when an upsurge of regulatory activism reflected increasing sensitivity to national sovereignty in the context of Brexit. Through an empirical–legal content analysis of eight official reports issued by the UK government, parliamentary committees, and regulatory agencies, we code the online harms to which regulation is being asked to respond; identify relevant subject domains of law (such as data protection and privacy, competition, education, media and broadcasting, consumer protection, tax law and financial regulation, intellectual property law, security law); and analyze the agencies referred in the reports for their centrality in the regulatory network and their regulatory powers. Drawing on Bourdieu’s notion of “field,” we observe the emergence of regulators with investigatory and enforcement powers that stand in mutually unstable power relations to each other as well as vis-à-vis shifting executive and legislative interventions. Online platforms appear to acquire authority to exercise state powers.