The Influence of Information Intermediaries on Political Opinion Formation

The media make an indispensable contribution to the functioning of democracy by providing information and presenting different views on political issues. On this basis, the citizens are enabled to form their own, well-founded opinions and to participate in the democratic process. In the digital age, this function is no longer fulfilled exclusively by the traditional mass media, but also by information intermediaries like Google and Facebook who have become important political information sources meanwhile. Their importance for opinion formation processes has so far mainly been discussed in the context of the much-cited metaphors of “filter bubble” and “echo chambers”, but systematic empirical studies thereon are still scarce. It is particularly unclear whether and how personalized information selection, based on algorithms and homophily, leads to biased perceptions of societally relevant topics and of the opinion climate.

This project aims at clarifying the influence of information intermediaries (particularly Facebook) on opinion formation processes (including, e.g., the perception of the opinion climate and the willingness to speak out) as well as issue and opinion diversity on the individual and the societal level. The study compares the influence of a broad range of political information sources (information intermediaries, traditional mass media, personal conversation) as well as of the recipients’ personal characteristics.

Methodologically, the study uses a multi-method design to adequately capture the complex causal relationships in opinion formation processes: It combines a two-week daily diary (quantitative), a tracking analytics tool (quantitative) and an online community (qualitative). The results enrich the recent public debate about the influence of algorithms on society and the media-ethical responsibility of the major Internet companies. Furthermore, they inform media authorities on starting points for regulatory measures of information intermediaries.

Collaborators

Birgit Stark (JGU Mainz, Germany)
Melanie Magin (NTNU, Trondheim, Norway)
Pascal Jürgens (JGU Mainz, Germany)

Funding

Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia (LfM)
Research Unit Media Convergence of JGU Mainz

Project Duration

2016-