‘Meet New Methods’: Keep Calm and Follow The Data

On Interdisciplinary Methods for Studying Platform Power

The AI, Media & Democracy Lab is hosting a series of interdisciplinary sessions at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) called ‘Meet New Methods’. Interdisciplinary research requires researchers to break disciplinary walls on the methodological level, and think outside the box: How can they bridge the language gap between their respective disciplines? How do they come to understand and use methodologies outside of their ‘traditional’ area of application? In what ways can they combine methodologies from different disciplines? This series will focus on the methodologies that underpin interdisciplinary research, and more specifically, research that aims to contextualize the impact of new technologies.

For our second session on studying platform power, we were happy to welcome David Nieborg and Theresa Seipp: As an associate professor in media studies at the University of Toronto, David brings expertise in the field of platform and app studies. Theresa is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Information Law and a researcher at the AI, Media and Democracy lab. Her PhD project questions how to regulate platform opinion power in a concentrated digital media ecosystem.

Theresa offered an overview of various approaches to legal research on platforms, highlighting the importance of conceptualizing power. Moreover, she stated that before any legal research can have real implications or effects, the concepts and theories have to be clearly defined. There is also a need for an increase in interdisciplinary research to unfold platform power, integrating knowledge, methods, and theories from across disciplines, including but not limited to communication science, journalism studies, and platform studies. 

Moving to the realm of app studies, David Nieborg questions how we can theorize and analyze institutional platform power, and what measures are necessary in order to implement effective policies on platforms. He highlights the importance of knowing the object, which often proves to be difficult due to the opaqueness of their inner workings. What we see from the user interface is merely the tip of the iceberg. He proposes both financial and institutional analysis, in the style of “follow the money, follow the data”. 

Image by David Nieborg

The question of policy and governance is a difficult but crucial one, which both panellists can likely agree on. Issues concerning locality and specificity are especially important when considering various methodological and theoretical approaches. There is a fine line between broadening understanding to a universal standpoint and losing necessary context. This becomes even more tricky when it comes to legislation and policy on platforms transcending borders. If applied, infrastructural issues arise: the banning of an app for example would reveal all underlying connections and overlaps, like app packages and integrations with other applications or platforms that could still circulate data. Both Theresa and David agree that in any case, it is necessary to define subject matters exactly and to specify what is included or excluded from their scope. 

We express our gratitude to Theresa Seipp and David Nieborg for joining our Meet New Methods session and presenting their approaches, thoughts, and concerns about methodologies in their respective fields. We further thank the attendees for their engaging feedback and thought-provoking discussion points. As an interdisciplinary research lab, we value contributions from researchers of all related fields and look forward to hosting future sessions questioning methods, broadening horizons, and enabling exchange between scholars.