2022/06/02 Andreas Jungherr

Data and algorithms in society

The fourth lecture in the lecture series Digital Media in Politics and Society is online. It is available here and wherever you get your podcasts.

Link to script:

In this and the following episodes, we will be talking about data and algorithms with a special focus on their uses in and effects on politics. In this episode, we start with data.

Data collected with and on digital devices make new phenomena, objects, and behaviors visible to those with access to that data. Digital technology has extended the amount and depth of data on human behavior and social systems. This has been seen by some as a measurement revolution for the social sciences and as providing many new avenues to knowledge as well as new business opportunities. Still, these data riches have to be translated into meaningful measures of phenomena of interest and society. Without meaningful interpretation these new data remain noise machines, potentially even hiding the signal one is looking for in order to gain understanding or improvement.


00:00 – Introduction
00:21 – Data and algorithms in society
04:17 – Data and measurement
08:37 – Big data
14:10 – Data and control
19:46 – Metrics
24:53 – Conclusion

In this episode, we will talk about algorithms, what they are, how they work, and concerns they create once applied broadly and in scale across society.

A computer algorithm provides a computationally executable series of steps with the goal of solving a given task or problem. Algorithms are shaping people’s option spaces in various areas of social life. This has given rise to broad concerns that are part of public debate but also of academic research. Concerns focus on the opaqueness of the uses of algorithms, their inner workings, and their effects; the fairness of their outcomes; and fears of unintended consequences once algorithms are rolled out in scale. This makes algorithms, their uses, mechanisms, and effects a prominent topic for social scientists engaged in understanding the use of digital technology in society.


00:00 – Introduction
00:21 – Algorithms
10:57 – Concerns
11:48 – Opaqueness
15:34 – Fairness
19:38 – Unintended consequences
24:26 – Conclusion

In this episode, we will be looking at how the uses of data and algorithms change political campaigning.

One area in politics where we find pervasive uses of data and algorithms are political campaigns. Campaigners, candidates, and campaign organizations use data to see the electorate, populations of interest, and their volunteers. They use metrics to monitor their progress and measure their success. They sometimes even use algorithms in order to identify who to talk to and how to best approach them. While data and quantification play an increasing role in international campaigns, their use and contribution in campaigns in the USA is most pronounced and merits specific attention if we want to understand the principles of their use and effects.


00:00 – Introduction
00:20 – The uses and effects of data and algorithms in political campaigns
09:16 – How to keep volunteers engaged?
14:31 – How can we learn about the use of data an algorithms in campaigns?
20:39 – Conclusion

In this episode, we will be looking at how the uses of data and algorithms change journalism.

Another field heavily impacted by the uses of data and algorithms is journalism. Journalists and editors see themselves facing new opportunities for the measurement of the success and reach of their pieces with audiences by counting clicks on their sites and interaction metrics provided to them by platform companies used by them to steer audiences to news pieces. Algorithms also play a role in the way people are steered toward journalistic content. By the increasing dependency on digital platforms – like Facebook, Instagram, or Google – news media are subject to the algorithms these platforms use to prioritize or de-prioritize journalistic pieces. Accordingly, figuring out the mechanisms behind these algorithms and adapting one’s pieces accordingly may come to matter. Finally, and potentially most disruptively, algorithms are increasingly used to produce journalistic pieces automatically, raising fears about the future of journalism as an occupation. Journalism offers a promising window into the field-specific impact and transformations driven by the increasing availability and uses of data and algorithms.


00:00 – Introduction
00:18 – Data and algorithms in journalism
08:36 – The use and perception of metrics in newsrooms
18:27 – Effects of metrics on audiences
22:40 – Uses and effects of data and algorithms in politics and society
25:55 – Conclusion

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