The Future of the Media and ‘Doing Good’ in the Age of the Algorithm
Ever since the breakthrough of the internet, the traditional media have struggled to find ways to create sustainable business models, retain their audiences’ trust and loyalty, and combat misinformation and manipulated media. The media ecosystem is broken. But there may still be time to fix it.
The illusion of the tech industry as an unmitigated agent for good in society has long since crumbled, but within the past couple of years, various stakeholders have been demanding a change of direction towards a more responsible tech industry. In the summer of 2020, a hearing was held before the US Congress at which Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon testified concerning their market dominance in the industry, while at the same time, several high-profile brands such as Unilever, Pfizer and Boeing joined the #StopHateForProfit advertising boycott campaign that was targeted at impacting Facebook’s ad revenue. The aim of the campaign was to withdraw advertising from the platform and thereby send the message to Facebook to “stop valuing profits over hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism, and disinformation” (stophateforprofit.org). Some saw this as easy purpose-washing by the participating companies, others as a necessary reaction to the frequently-used response from Facebook representatives, when confronted by criticism and calls to do better, that “We know we have more work to do.” As the New York Times put it, the phrase is both a promise and a deflection: “It’s a plea for unearned trust — give us time, we are working toward progress. And it cuts off meaningful criticism — yes, we know this isn’t enough, but more is coming.” (July 1, 2020) The reality is that there are fundamental structural flaws in the construction of the social media — including the whole architecture of algorithms that rate engagement and predictability over values and free actions, and it is to a large extent a structure that the traditional media have chosen to emulate in their digital products and business models, so as to adapt to the overarching ecosystem.
The early internet was founded on utopian ideals of connecting people in a virtual space through the free flow of knowledge, free from the constraints and the rules of the physical world — and indeed it largely functioned that way until its commercialisation in the late 1990s and early 00s. Today, however, the ubiquitous social media such as Facebook and the search engine Google have become monopoly-like platforms for social life, information seeking and media consumption. We don’t know exactly how their algorithms shape and nudge our digital lives, or how they (mis)use our data, but what we do know is that there are many negative side effects to the development: filter bubbles, echo chambers, the strengthening of biases, and a general lack of transparency.
The increasing personalisation of the internet is not entirely a bad thing, but the power of the algorithms to boost the negative side effects is overwhelming. Many initiatives have been launched to try to fix the issues that arise from this, including some that have been launched by the tech giants themselves. Facebook, for example, recently initiated several measures — mainly in response to external pressure — to try to do things better. Their so-called equity teams investigated whether algorithms on Facebook and Instagram discriminated against users on the basis of ethnicity, and they created a new oversight board to ensure better content moderation on the platform. However, these initiatives will not in themselves be enough to fix the challenges in the media landscape. The increasing power of the big tech companies can no longer be overlooked. To understand this better, let’s take a look at the underlying structures of one of the most successful players in today’s social media landscape.
If I say Tik, you say …? The brand that is on everyone’s lips these days needs no introduction: TikTok is everywhere. However, it is not really a social media in the traditional sense, since its underlying algorithms do not focus on your social network, but instead concentrate on analysing your every move: the way you use hashtags, your location, your favourite music, the videos you like, and all your other interactions, which it combines to create a unique, personalised feed — all with the aim of keeping you on the app for as long as possible. It uses your data to fine tune the For You page (the front page). Moreover, and most importantly, there is no hierarchy in the content. Anyone can easily post content that has a chance to go viral — even if you do not have many followers, which with other SoMe apps would influence the result.
In many ways, traditional media outlets are defined by their high quality journalism and content, but also by their limitations: there is only so much content you can produce in editorials and production companies, and it is dependent on the number of employees you have. This mentality around the structure of traditional releases of content seems difficult to change. The internet and its large, tech-driven monopolies, on the other hand, are characterised by a vast abundance of endless (user-generated) content — an area in which TikTok excels. The goal is simply to obtain as much content as possible, and then boost whatever turns out to be popular according to the algorithms. And that is how TikTok keeps its users hooked: It represents the creation of a new model in which popularity (based on data) beats publicism (based on editorial input), and abundance beats scarcity. There is therefore a fundamental need to discuss how algorithms can support publicistic content and values in society in general, rather than settling for instant gratification and a non-stop flow of content that is based only on your own data.
Globally, many new initiatives have been launched with the aim of prodding the stakeholders in the media ecosystem to take action and set up better systems of accountability. Recently, the World Economic Forum published a white paper with the title Building Back Better: An Action Plan for the Media, Entertainment and Culture Industry (2020), which was aimed at identifying and encouraging practical initiatives through which publishers, advertisers, agencies and platforms could improve the media ecosystem in the phase of ‘building back better’ post-COVID-19, with the goal of creating a more trusted, prosperous, resilient and equitable media industry. The report also states that the milestones projected for 2025 are on track to be met in early 2021, thanks to the accelerating effects of COVID-19. Another initiative is the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, founded by World Federation of Advertisers with the aim of ensuring better protection for users online, securing their personal data and encouraging responsible data use, as they “acknowledge their collective power to significantly improve the health of the media ecosystem.”
A survey conducted in 2019 among the CEO members of the UN Global Compact found that 77 per cent of media CEOs recognised the critical role that businesses could play in contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but only 13 per cent believed that their own businesses were actually playing that role. A new report from 2020 states that COVID-19 has in many ways hindered progress towards the SDGs, but has also made that progress more urgent, since 59 per cent of consumers surveyed in May 2020 said they would avoid brands that failed to proclaim corporate goals that could positively affect society and the planet.
In brief, then, the media have not so far placed a great deal of focus on creating a better world by programming their algorithms accordingly — but consumers will soon start to demand it. And as things tend to go in these purpose-driven times, we are likely to experience an earthquake with the power to change the media landscape as we know it. It will be a movement that will create a divide between the media companies that have embraced social responsibility in their digital transformation, and those that have not — and it will be a test of leadership at both industry and individual level, in which the blueprint for industry leaders will evolve to encompass agility, impact, responsibility and authenticity.
In futures studies, we always examine the drivers and blockers that influence trends or developments. The development of TikTok alongside the other big tech companies has demonstrated a focus in which monetisation trumps ethics and human values. The business plan does not really encompass ‘doing good’. The business model of TikTok could easily be implemented as comme il faut in the media industry if profit is the only goal, and if we — the users — do not really care about where our society is heading or how our data is being used. There is no question that the model works, in terms of financial gain, or that the role of personalisation of digital content will grow immensely in the future media landscape, so it is something the traditional media companies will need to learn and embrace. But the future generation of media consumers are also demanding more than just a personalised feed: They are demanding a better future.
2020 has been a very chaotic year so far, and it is clear that the world, now more than ever, has a need for reliable, responsible curation of content in the media on the basis of fairness, accountability and transparency. Looking ahead, it is likely that we will have to deal even more with new issues such as synthetic and manipulated media and neural communication, in which the boundaries between real and fake will be even harder to distinguish. Is what I’m seeing real? Can I trust it? Is there a reason why I’m being exposed to this particular content right now? New ways to address the users will be constantly appearing in which the line between entertainment and news will be much more blurred. It’s time to take the algorithms seriously.