The Soap Box as a Black Box: Regulating Transparency in Social Media Recommender Systems


  • Paddy Leerssen


Social media recommender systems play a central role in determining what content is seen online, and what remains hidden. As a point of control for media governance, they are subject to intense controversy and, increasingly, regulation by European policymakers. A recurring theme in such efforts is transparency, but this is an ambiguous concept that can be implemented in various ways depending on the types of accountability one envisages. This paper maps and critiques the various efforts at regulating social media recommendation transparency in Europe, and the types of accountability they pursue.

This paper identifies three different categories of disclosure rules in recent policymaking: (1) user-facing disclaimers, (2) government auditing, and (3) data-sharing partnerships with academia and civil society.  Despite their limitations and pitfalls, it is argued, each of these approaches has a potential added value for media governance as part of a tiered, varied landscape of transparency rules. However, an important element is missing - public data access. Current trends emphasise exclusive data access regimes directed at particular, trusted regulators or researchers, but this approach has important limitations in terms of scalability, inclusiveness, and independence. This paper articulates the distinct benefits of public data access as a supplement to existing transparency measures, and suggests starting points for its design and regulation.






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