Collective dynamics on the Internet – influence of algorithms

A talk with the social scientist, Dr. Jan-Felix Schrape, on social movements and communities on the Internet, the influence of algorithms and the interests of Internet companies.

Mass phenomena, communities and movements on the Internet

Initially it was claimed about the “Arab Spring” in 2010/11 that it would not have been possible without the social media. This thesis gave cause for in-depth research in the social sciences as to how social movements and communities of interest act on the Internet, how mass phenomena arise and whether long-lasting politically processes can develop from these.

Dr. Jan-Felix Schrape researches as a research assistant in the department for Organisational and Innovation Sociology at the Institute for Social Sciences at the University of Stuttgart together with the Head of the Department, Professor Dr. Ulrich Dolata.

Spontaneous waves that quickly collapse  
Dr. Jan-Felix Schrape describes two types in the emergence of mass phenomena on the Internet: “There are collective phenomena that occur spontaneously and that are not consciously coordinated.“ This includes so-called shitstorms or waves of approval and sympathy around hashtags. For example, the origin of these mostly rapidly developing dynamics lies in picking up twitter articles by famous people, announcements by manufacturers of consumer goods, events such as deaths and catastrophes or also quite simply train delays. A great wave occurs: however, this mostly implodes quickly. In spite of this it can certainly lead to reactions outside of the digital world. Manufacturers for example change their marketing strategies or adapt their products.  

Coordinated communities of interest and movements 
Besides these spontaneous mass phenomena, there are longer-term active communities of interest and social movements that are initiated and coordinated by organised core groups. “The quick, location-independent, often global exchange and simultaneous address of very many people is common. In the past this was not possible in this way“, explained the 38-year old.

These so-called “collective players” are divided up even further by the social scientists. There are the rather classic political movements, such as recently the protests against the TTIP and CETA trade agreements that use the social media as an important mobilising tool. In addition communities and movements have developed that can only emerge in this way using the technical infrastructures of the Internet. This includes open-source communities such as Linux or project communities such as Wikipedia, the hacker collective Anonymous or also the Internet-based participatory forum Campact.

"Internet infrastructures and structures in urban planning are comparable."

Dr. Jan-Felix Schrape

According to investigations by the Stuttgart social scientists, Professor Ulrich Dolata and Dr. Jan-Felix Schrape, however, political campaigns in particular are only successful if they are accompanied by “real” demonstrations on the street or other measures. The infrastructures of the Internet simplify the exchange, the coordination and the external communication; yet they do not replace the frequently protracted social processes that stabilise the movements or communities. “The possibilities of the Internet are comparable with structures in urban planning: large squares enable large gatherings. However, how these are used, what emerges from them, is not specified by this“, according to Dr. Schrape.

Both social scientists are investigating, for example, how consolidated protest movements such as Occupy or Pegida arise in some cases from spontaneous mass phenomena on Twitter or Facebook. To do this and besides evaluating the communication dynamics on the Internet and document analysis, they also conduct interviews with key players from the respective fields. 

Influence of algorithms

What comes into the field of vision of the social media users greatly depends on algorithms. On the whole, these are often extreme and captivating events such as catastrophes or scandals. This can lead to the perception of the users changing and the nervousness of the population increasing.   

Filter bubbles arise
Algorithms are responsible for the users predominantly being offered things that are  matched specifically to them. Everybody is aware of this: if you make an inquiry about holiday apartments on Sicily, you will receive an increased number of adverts on this topic later. This is how filter bubbles can occur on platforms like Facebook in which the users are practically only surrounded by those things filtered specifically for them. They hardly perceive the things that do not correspond to their interests and opinions. “This can be particularly dangerous in the political field“, said Dr. Schrape, since self-contained “counter-publics” can occur in this way, as was the case recently in the context of the refugee crisis.

Which adjusting screws lead to which contents is not transparent
There is a great deal of data on each user the platform providers can access. “How the algorithms use our data and how they work is difficult to investigate“, according to Dr. Schrape. “Which adjusting screws lead to advertising which contents is not transparent for users. The algorithms remain a well-kept corporate secret.” The influence of algorithms will become even greater in future, Dr. Schrape predicted: “Through the Internet of Things there will be even more evaluable data about us and our interactions.“

Interests and influence of Internet companies

The social media on the Internet are small legal vacuums; yet due to the fact that they are operated location-independent and globally beyond state borders, it remains difficult for the state to regulate them.

The communication areas on the social media are above all determined by the “domiciliary right“ of the respective provider to which the users have to consent, similar to shopping malls if they want to be active there. In addition, technical specifications such as, for example the character limit on Twitter, greatly determine what is and isn’t possible on the platform. But also the content-related spectrum is tailored to internal criteria, which is not always accessible, according to Dr. Schrape. “Particularly at election times some people and parties feel unfairly censored by Facebook und Co.“

Only a handful of concerns decide on regulations 
“You have to be aware of the fact that these regulations are set up by private companies and guided by economic interests. Up to now the public authorities have only provided rudimentary regulations“, according to the social scientist. What he finds particularly alarming is that there are only a handful of companies worldwide that operate the central communication platforms today and that correspondingly have a great influence. 

Do we need more national and global regulations? Will it be at all possible to implement these? These questions are not easy to answer and the opinions of social scientists differ, explained Dr. Schrape.

"Media competence is an important topic."

Dr. Jan-Felix Schrape

“Media competence is an important topic“
He attaches particular importance in this context to media competence: “Pupils should not only learn how a computer works. They should also become acquainted with the operating modes of the platforms, the involved companies and the attention dynamics on the Internet in order to gain a better understanding of why they are shown certain messages, which data they release when and which connections are behind these.“

Cooperation of social scientists and software engingeers

A closer cooperation between social scientists and software engineers is also important, according to Dr. Schrape. “Many social scientists do not know how algorithms are concretely developed“. Vice versa many software engineers do not understand how social scientists work.   

It is fortuitous then that a team working for the Stuttgart scientists will be cooperating together with scientists from very different disciplines in the framework of a project network by the Hans-Böckler Foundation from autumn. In total 15 projects will be dealing with the effects of digital technologies on society and the working world, including also the Stuttgart project “Digital Project Communities as Innovation Incubators“.

Jan-Felix Schrape


Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences, Department of Organizational Sociology and Innovation Studies

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