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Informing Regulatory Reasoning on Algorithmic Systems in Societal Communication with STEAM – The Socio-Technical Ecosystem Architecture Method

Informing Regulatory Reasoning on Algorithmic Systems in Societal Communication with STEAM – The Socio-Technical Ecosystem Architecture Method

Societal communication has changed profoundly in the wake of ongoing digitalisation, without media law instruments and approaches having sufficiently adapted to this. In view of new compositions of actors and the use of algorithmic systems and other technologies, new approaches to media regulation are required. While the ideal of maintaining media diversity has been the primary concern so far, it is now no longer scarce channels but complex systems of the most diverse actors that determine what chance a certain content has of being perceived.

This project aims at establishing a Socio-Technical Ecosystem Architecture Method (STEAM) that builds on existing architecture-based approaches in computer science as well as normative concepts and frameworks informed by legal and ethical expertise and horizon scanning approaches. Thus, it will enable an in-depth description and assessment of ecosystems, the actors embedded in them and the dynamic functions among them. The assessment seeks to identify novel threats to societal communication as well as suitable starting points for their regulatory counteraction.

Novel actors and technologies used by them, particularly related to artificial intelligence (AI), have gained relevance in the generation, aggregation, selection, curation, and prioritization of content. At the time a content item is displayed in an individual’s sphere of attention, numerous decisions are made beforehand that influence the content’s dissemination and the probability of ending up as part of the individual’s media repertoire. Specifically, various actors (e.g. content creators, digital platforms or content providers) involved in the entire process from content creation to content provision have influence on societal communication. In this relation, these actors also increasingly use algorithmic systems and, in particular, AI. Two examples illustrate this phenomenon:
  1. The first illustrative example is provided by Facebook and its news-aggregating application Facebook News. The platform is constituted by a constellation of human, technical, and institutional actors and dynamics as well as interdependencies among them. Ultimately, human curators, together with recommendation and filtering algorithms, generate a selection of media contributions that are offered to the user. However, the pool of available contributions is already narrowed by various limiting factors in the broader environment. Facebook, together with external partners, selects media outlets that are admitted. Furthermore, Facebook determines publisher guidelines that providers need to adhere to and monetization schemes that publishers need to agree to. Therefore, the media repertoire of a user of Facebook News is co-determined by a range of decisions made by various actors.
  2. The second example considers the American social networking platform Parler, which is often discussed for user content involving far-right posts, antisemitism, and conspiracy theories. In January 2021, three companies exerted meaningful influence on the accessibility and usage of Parler. Both major mobile platform providers - Google and Apple - removed Parler from their respective app stores on iOS and Android. In addition, Amazon excluded Parler from its cloud hosting service Amazon Web Services (AWS). Through this intervention by Amazon, Parler was apparently unable to operate its platform and had to go offline. The example emphasizes that  parties who fulfil different functions in making content accessible have an influence on what content is brought to the attention of users without prior judicial or regulatory decision to do so and without having been in the spotlight as important actors in societal communication.
Both cases demonstrate challenges to pre-existing mechanisms for safeguarding societal communication and its essential functions. The cases might hint at problems for relevant qualities of societal communication, which are not covered by the current communication law system. Therefore, we need to fundamentally rethink how we can continue to ensure that socially relevant communication takes place both openly and freely.

To achieve the research objectives, we develop the Socio-Technical Ecosystem Architecture Method (STEAM) to enable a holistic view on news dissemination in an ecosystem. This method will help in the presentation of ecosystems and their actors and relations in a way that forms the basis from a regulatory perspective to allow the assessment of the potential influence of actors. To develop STEAM, we integrate architectural thinking and normative reasoning within three iterations of a design science research (DSR) appraoch.

The project is one of seven project consortia from the social and technical sciences funded by the Volkswagen Foundation with a total of 9.8 million euros. All selected projects are scheduled to run for three to four years and will each receive funding of around 1.5 million euros. Further information on the Volkswagen Foundation's initiative "Artificial Intelligence and the Society of the Future" can be found at https://www.volkswagenstiftung.de/en/funding/our-funding-portfolio-at-a-glance/artificial-intelligence-and-the-society-of-the-future.

Photo by bert b on Unsplash
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Project Description

The Necessity for a Socio-Technical Ecosystem Architecture Perspective

Recent research and regulatory approaches recognized these seismic shifts in content provision, for instance, by requiring transparency and fairness of automated decision-making algorithms or by extending traditional regulatory concepts to novel actors, in particular to so-called intermediaries and platforms (Schulz & Dankert 2017, Müller-Terpitz 2017, Paal 2018; cf. the recent German regulation in the so-called “Medienstaatsvertrag”, currently in the process of ratification). While certainly valuable, the complexity of actors and mechanisms shaping individual media repertoires is not yet sufficiently addressed in any of these approaches. Much attention has been given to the “last mile” - meaning the last decision points, often established by intermediaries, e.g., through recommender systems - in the flow of a piece of public information towards an individual’s media repertoire. However, even the shifting focus from the originator to the recipient in recent approaches does not account for what happens in-between these two actors in a complex socio-technical ecosystem. How the configuration of this ecosystem influences the likelihood of a piece of content to appear in an individual’s media repertoire remains a black box. This is a serious omission given the growing variety of services and platforms that emerge in media-related ecosystems and influence the process of selection of media contents in so far unrecognized ways. Our project addresses this research gap by developing and evaluating a novel architectural perspective on these ecosystems. We argue that an architectural perspective allows a systematic decomposition of complex ecosystems and provides transparency at different levels of granularity, including relations between actors (e.g., data flows, contracts, privacy statements), intra-organizational data processing (e.g., embedded types of AI like machine learning and related algorithms, purposes of AI like profiling or manipulation), and infrastructure (e.g., devices, applications, application programming interfaces (API)).
We understand socio-technical ecosystems as “a dynamic community of competing and interdependent people, organizations, and computing systems operating in a complex, capricious environment” (McConahy et al. 2012). These ecosystems are characterized by the openness, emergence and dynamics of actors and their relations (Iansiti & Levien 2004). In this project, we focus on socio-technical ecosystems in media contexts. In these ecosystems, content is generated, aggregated, selected, curated and prioritized and, in the end, constitutes the users’ media repertoire. Different actors, technologies and business models are involved, depending on the different dissemination channels. A broadened perspective that goes beyond both the traditional focus of media concentration and the current fixation on the functioning of and logic behind algorithmic recommender systems is necessary. The information systems-based architectural perspective enables access to the increased complexity of socio-technical relations in ecosystems.

We use the generic term “societal communication” for communication that contributes to the essential functions a society requires (e.g. cohesion and democratic self-governance). This focus allows us to examine two important characteristics of socio-technical ecosystems for societal communication: their composition and their dynamics. To capture the new hybridity, our focus will be on “news” content in a broad sense as an essential part of societal communication. We will build on the understanding developed by the annual Reuters Institute Digital News Survey: 'news' means information about international, national, regional/local, or other current events that is accessible via radio, television, print media, or online (Hölig & Hasebrink 2018). Sources can be journalistic mass media, but also other institutions, groups, or individuals. Building on this definition also allows us to use the Reuters’ data to better understand the side of the individual use of news, which we will not cover with our own original research in this study. 

Thus, our method aims at identifying societal relevant concerns for news in the ecosystem - on its way from the production to the reception. Future governance concepts that aim at guaranteeing a communication process that meets the needs of a society has to embrace this complexity. This project intends to build a framework for that endeavour.

Research Questions and Project Impact

We will examine news distribution taking place in socio-technical ecosystems by using an architectural lens. This lens enables understanding how various actors and technologies interact in shaping societal communication. The IT-architectural lens thus does not only account for the content creator and the “last mile” actor that delivers news content to recipients but for the entire constellation of actors and algorithmic systems across the path and involved in the generation, aggregation, selection, curation and prioritisation of content. Systems of human, technical and collective actors jointly influence societal communication and how a decision impacting the presentation of a piece of content is finally made. However, the means of exerting influence of the individual actors involved in the decision-making process vary significantly and depend on the ecosystem and its interdependencies. We address the following main research questions in our project:
  • Which actors and related elements in ecosystems influence the probability of content to appear in the news repertoires of individuals and, therefore, societal communication as a whole? How can we describe such an ecosystem in a way that helps identify potential influence that can be considered undue?
  • How can we normatively - ethically and legally - assess ecosystems regarding risks for functioning societal communication? 
  • Where are promising entry points for regulatory impulses in socio-technical ecosystems to counteract actors’ influence that are identified as undue?
  • How to encourage mechanisms safeguarding and promoting societal communication?
The results of our project have an impact on multiple classes of stakeholders from different fields:

First, actors from the legal sector such as lawmakers and regulators can take an architectural point of view as a kind of construction kit for policy attempts when trying to find possible gateways for identifying and preventing societal threats early on.

Second, actors located in ecosystems such as app or platform providers that are directly involved can refer to our proposed architectural perspective to holistically structure their collaboration, optimize both technical and organizational interfaces to other actors and incrementally design and implement an ecosystem’s overall transformation while considering regulatory constraints.

Third, we provide civil society as a whole a basis to discuss the roles and responsibilities of actors in the ecosystem and especially to judge what action might be considered due or undue.

Fourth, with our novel perspective, we give media researchers a new holistic approach to study increasingly complex ecosystems. In addition, we build the foundations for interdisciplinary collaboration possibilities in the fields of computer science, information systems, law, and philosophy. This comprehensive perspective can ultimately make an impact by helping pave the way towards a modern successor of the current broadcast-centric approach to preventing undue influence and predominating power of opinion.

Project Information


Duration: 2022-2026

Research programme:
RP2 - Regulatory Structures and the Emergence of Rules in Digital Communication

Involved persons

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulz

Third party


Cooperation Partner

Prof. Dr. Tilo Böhmann, Prof. Dr. Ingrid Schirmer und Prof. Dr. Judith Simon (alle Fachbereich Informatik, Universität Hamburg)

Contact person

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulz
Director (Chairperson)

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulz

Leibniz-Institut für Medienforschung │ Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI)
Rothenbaumchaussee 36
20148 Hamburg

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