“The impact of information intermediaries on opinion formation”

Collaboration between the Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia (LfM) and Prof. Dr. Birgit Stark from the Department of Communication of the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz

Project outline (as of: October 2016)

Media outlets make an essential contribution to the way in which democracy functions because they provide information and present different viewpoints on political issues. On the basis of this, citizens should be able to form their own opinions, which are as well-founded as possible, and participate in the democratic decision-making process. In the digital age, this information func-tion is no longer solely provided by classic media outlets, but also by information intermediaries such as Google and Facebook. The fact that these digital services have an influence on the pro-cess of opinion formation, through technical control and weighting, is relatively indisputable: the presentation of search results directs users’ attention and has an indirect influence on attitudes and decisions as a result of the rankings, without the digital services themselves having to serve as the actual content provider. The received media diversity is narrowed through this communi-cation process and, due to the automated personalization of online content among others, frag-mented publics are formed – the so-called filter bubbles or echo chambers.

To date, little empirical evidence on the impact of information intermediaries on opinion for-mation exists: The key open question here is whether – and how – algorithm-based filtering, sort-ing and personalization logics can lead to distorted communication and perception of socially relevant issues.

The collaborative project therefore sets out to determine the influence that information interme-diaries – in particular Facebook – have on opinion formation processes and the diversity of viewpoints. The key focus of the study is placed on the question of how strongly Facebook in-fluences the perception of issues and the communication and formation of opinions relating to political topics. The following set of questions lie at the core of the investigation:

  • What level of influence is attributed to Facebook in terms of perceiving news in compari-son with traditional mass media outlets? In this context, how can the presence and diffu-sion of news on Facebook by traditional providers be evaluated?

  • How strongly does Facebook actually influence the perception of issues, the subjective feeling of being well-informed, the communication of opinions and perception of the opin-ion climate? Which elements of the opinion formation process are threatened by risks which require measures to safeguard plurality?

  • How does Facebook’s potential for influencing opinion formation and diversity differenti-ate between different types of users?

The study employs a multi-method design: a combination of quantitative and qualitative surveys in the form of an online diary study, a tracking analysis tool and an online community. The com-plexity of the opinion formation processes on Facebook can be better recorded by documenting actual usage during the course of a diary study than by using classic survey methods, which are generally subject to the risk of memory-related distortions. Furthermore, their results tend to be more generalizable than those returned by qualitative approaches or laboratory investigations. The supplementary collection of tracking data allows the answers generated by the survey to be linked to precise detailed usage patterns for the first time. Because of the involvement of users, a subsequent community study facilitates a selective evaluation and discussion of the behavior patterns and of the findings obtained.

The results of the study are also intended to deliver findings relating to the aspects to which me-dia regulation could be applied. The results therefore inform the current very intensive debate about the influence algorithms have on society and the responsibility of the large internet com-panies in terms of media ethics.