Vol. 4 No. 2 (2024)

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    Communicative Feedback Loops in the Digital Society
    (Weizenbaum Institute, 2024-05-27) Trilling, Damian
    Contemporary communication is often characterized using metaphors as “echo chambers” or “filter bubbles.” Despite the popularity of these terms, however, growing concerns about vague definitions are complemented by empirical evidence that contests their widespread existence. Nonetheless, today’s media environment offers ample opportunities for human and/or algorithmic selection processes with undesirable outcomes. To reconcile these two observations, I propose taking a feedback-loop perspective. Such a perspective explains how processes can reinforce themselves without producing catastrophic consequences. This can solve the paradox that while extrapolating from typical filter bubble and/or echo chamber models results in full radicalization within a short period, this outcome has not, despite the long-standing presence of the relevant technologies, become omnipresent. After mapping different types of feedback loops in communication research, I review various empirical approaches, discuss how they can improve research on feedback-loop phenomena, and consider how this can enable us to build better theories of communication in the digital society.
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    Outside the Black Box: From Algorithmic Transparency to Platform Observability in the Digital Services Act
    (Weizenbaum Institute, 2024-05-15) Leerssen, Paddy
    Algorithmic transparency is high on the agenda for social media regulation. However, recent work in Science and Technology Studies questions whether this endeavor of “opening the black box” is feasible or even meaningful due to the sociotechnical contingency of platform behavior. To address these shortcomings, Bernhard Rieder and Jeannette Hofmann have proposed a move from algorithmic transparency to platform observability: a pragmatic and sociotechnical perspective aimed at securing structural, real-time access to the means of platform knowledge production. This paper applies the concept of observability to recent legislative developments in the EU’s new Digital Services Act. Reviewing that legislation’s transparency rules demonstrates how familiar algorithmic principles rules are starting to be complemented by innovative new observability policies and how these reflect revised understandings of transparency’s possible subjects, functions, and formats. This review also surfaces normative tensions in observability policy. In terms of substance, observability demands access to content but struggles to discern public from private discourses in semi-public social media channels. In terms of function, observability aims to act as a companion to regulation, but tensions arise between a broad concept of knowledge production and a narrow concept of regulatory compliance monitoring. In terms of format, observability’s drive for infrastructural and real-time access entails new API governance tradeoffs between, for example, scope and scalability. Along these lines, observability paves the way for a more constructive debate around platform data access laws and the dead ends of algorithmic transparency.
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    Drifting Away from the Mainstream: Media Attention and the Politics of Hyperpartisan News Websites
    (Weizenbaum Institute, 2024-02-21) Yan, Pu; Schroeder, Ralph
    Populism has recently enjoyed success in Europe, the US, and beyond. Populist leaders and their supporters have accused “mainstream” media of being part of a “corrupt” elite that misrepresents the will of the virtuous “people.” Distrust of the media has also prompted the rejection of traditional media sources for political information and given prominence to alternative and hyperpartisan sources such as Breitbart. However, limited research exists concerning who consumes hyperpartisan media, how the websites of hyperpartisan media are interconnected, and what content is presented in hyperpartisan news. By combining cross-national surveys with large-scale digital trace datasets of website visits, this paper demonstrates the link between populist party support and hyperpartisan media visits. It also identifies influential sources of hyperpartisan news by analyzing the audience similarity networks of these websites and reveals country-level variations in hyperpartisan news and the dominance of US politics among the identified hyperpartisan news topics.