Genesis of the Media Policy Lab

Let’s start here: rethinking media pluralism

Digitisation has permanently changed our information landscape. Information intermediaries such as Facebook and Google have become an integral part of the knowledge transfer and communication process. Their functioning changes how people search for information, receive and respond to messages. On the one hand, digital services provide access to a whole new wealth of information and new forms of participatory communication. On the other hand, as the term suggests, information intermediaries are given a new intermediary role, which cannot be achieved without side effects. The responsibility and also the power, which information intermediaries do have, raise new questions for society. How exactly do information intermediaries influence the diversity of opinions in a democracy? What factors determine the diversity of media for individual users in the digital age? As a media institution, it is our task to ensure the diversity of the media and thus we are faced with the challenge of understanding the complexity of this impact in order to fulfil our mission. We see it as our responsibility not only to investigate these questions in theory, but also to answer them as best we can in practice, in order to use this knowledge to initiate further steps that maintain and promote a lively and diverse information landscape.

First Step: get together!

We do not want to face this challenge alone. We work with international experts on individual projects involving research and the general public. As an initial impetus for these projects, a first expert workshop was held in the vicinity of Berlin from 5 to 7 May 2017.

Six international scientists, whose research deals with information intermediaries from different disciplinary perspectives, launched the first event:

© Jeroen Oerlemanns

Prof. Dr. Natali Helberger, Professor of Information Law at the University of Amsterdam, is known for her expertise of European law and her empirical studies on diversity and media pluralism. Helberger advises the European Commission and is a member of the "European Cloud Computing Contracts Expert Group".

Prof. Dr. Frank Pasquale, a lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland in the USA, is the author of the book The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information, which is regarded as a milestone in the debate.

Dr. Julia Powles from Cornell Tech and the University of Cambridge works not only as a scientist on the subject of media pluralism, but also as a journalistic editor and policy fellow at the Guardian. Her articles, for example on the use of Google DeepMind algorithms in healthcare, are important impulses in the international debate.

© Hans-Bredow-Institut

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulz, Professor at the University of Hamburg of Media Law and Director of the Hans-Bredow-Institute for Media Research as well as the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society is, among other things, a member of the Enquiry Commission of the Bundestag "Internet and Digital Society" and Chairman of the Commission of Experts of the German UNESCO Commission "Communication and Information".

Dr. Damian Tambini from the London School of Economics is one of the UK's leading policy advisors on media pluralism and a member of various commissions. He is a renowned expert on European media policy and is currently drafting a report for the Council of Europe on elections in the digital age.

Dr. Ben Wagner, Assistant Professor at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration as well as a Senior Researcher at the Centre of Internet & Human Rights (CIHR) and a consultant on the subject of the Internet and human rights, including for the EU and the UN, participated as an expert on censorship and modern democratic theories.

Prof. Dr. Katharina Zweig is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Kaiserslautern and a leading expert on algorithms and automated decision systems. She is also a co-founder of the NGO AlgorithmWatch, which promotes greater transparency in algorithmic decision-making processes.

The aim of this workshop was to identify problem areas for digital media diversity. In addition, initial solutions were also to be created. This was very ambitious for the short duration of the workshop, but worked surprisingly well, so that several project ideas were developed in the meeting of this extraordinary group of experts. One of these ideas is the manifesto for digital media diversity.

Doing things with words: a manifesto for digital media diversity!

A first difficulty for a contemporary promotion of media diversity is that the concept itself is hardly definable. There are various definitions that are sometimes even contradictory. Our experts even thought that media diversity might be one of the worst defined concepts in law. Moreover, research into media diversity is not an easy matter: Empirical research has its limits here, as it is difficult to reconstruct the ways in which people actually receive information in their everyday lives and how this influences their opinion-forming. In addition, science and regulation often lack access to data on the use of information intermediaries. All this makes it difficult to come close to the actual reality of media use.

So where should we begin to strengthen media diversity if we can hardly measure it properly? With media diversity targets! Whilst the concept is not an end in itself, media diversity is a means of preserving democratic freedoms in a democracy. Where freedom of expression is threatened, journalistic work becomes impossible, truths are suppressed or disinformation governs the formation of opinion, this balance is disturbed and media diversity is endangered. If selection criteria are not transparent, collected data determine the use and platform economy and network effects create market power, if users lose confidence, diversity and user sovereignty are threatened.

A first project of the Media Policy Lab will therefore revert to the goals of media diversity in the midst of digital change and formulate ideas on the current state and the necessary changes to preserve media diversity in a manifesto.

This way, we want to identify opportunities and challenges for the diversity of the media and create the basis for a social debate. The input of science is indispensable. Therefore, the manifesto was presented on 28 October 2017 as a "work in progress" at the Dubrovnik Media Days and discussed with the scientific participants. In order to present the finished manifesto to the public, we are planning an event in the spring of 2018. You want to be part of the discussion? Then write to us at and we will put you on our guest list!

Knowledge Network: promoting and networking knowledge

One thing became very clear during our first workshop: We can only find solutions if we bring together research from different fields and work interdisciplinary! Algorithmic decision-making systems have long been an omnipresent part of our world, yet hardly anyone understands what they do in detail and what risks they entail. What is the role and function of algorithmic decision-making systems, what is the significance for diversity of opinion? How political and technological solutions can preserve and strengthen the autonomy of individuals and democratic communities is a complex task that requires a clearer picture. Digital technologies and algorithmic decision-making systems are inevitably part of our social future. In order to shape this through laws and initiatives - instead of following the development of technology in a damaging manner - we need to understand the interrelationships of media diversity.

The Media Policy Lab organizes workshops with leading scientists, develops projects for better networking and supports knowledge transfer. Research results will be presented and discussed in different event formats, science, regulation, politics, media and civil society will be linked together. We would like to support new research approaches (such as Prof. Katharina Zweig's study on the influence of Google on the Bundestag elections), offer new forums for discussions on network policy and initiate cooperation. The results will be published here.

Published: 15.12.2017

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