How accountable are digital platforms?

Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd
Publication Type:
A Research Agenda for Digital Politics, 2020, William H. Dutton
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This chapter focuses on the accountability of platforms – a key question for researchers of digital politics. We set out a research agenda for answering the question of how platform power is held accountable that is both empirical and normative. Empirically, we emphasize the need to trace how accountability actually operates in practice. What accountability mechanisms exist, how are they used by publics, how do platforms respond, and with what effects? At the same time, we outline a normative agenda to investigate what genuine accountability requires and how existing accountability practices compare to this standard. Informed by deliberative approaches to democracy, and drawing in particular on Rainer Forst’s work on justification, we argue that the accountability of platforms is a question of their power being justified adequately to affected publics and that this depends on the quality of the discursive processes through which decisions about platforms are justified. Focusing on the quality of discursive processes allows us to distinguish critically between cases where publics merely accept platform power, unreflectively and in contexts of limited information and choice, to cases where power is justified through good reasons tested through inclusive public discourse.

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