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Algorithms and the reflexive turn

“In 2019, I hope that newsrooms will take this anti-algorithm stance to the next level by turning a critical eye to their own behavior.”

From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to Google’s work on the Department of Defense’s Project Maven, from Tesla’s fatal autopilot car crash to Facebook’s massive security breach, the problematic ways in which technology companies handled their data and constructed their algorithms repeatedly made headlines in 2018. As a result, Mark Zuckerberg and other tech executives spent most of last year apologizing for their expanding impact on society, which had previously been a triumphal narrative.

The tone of the journalistic coverage of Silicon Valley changed dramatically as well. Previous years’ breathless enthusiasm and optimistic accounts of digital technologies gave way to critical assessments in mainstream newsrooms across the United States. News organizations covered instances of disinformation, polarization, and discrimination fueled by algorithms. Journalists offered more wary accounts of the efforts of technology companies to solve their large-scale problems. The current media mood — perhaps like the mood of the public at large — has become decidedly anti-algorithmic.

In 2019, I hope that newsrooms will take this anti-algorithm stance to the next level by turning a critical eye to their own behavior.

From their use of invasive tracking systems to their reliance on real-time web analytics and their dependence on social media platforms for distribution, newsrooms are deeply enmeshed in the algorithmic world, as I have written elsewhere. To date, newsrooms have not lingered on this fact. Unlike the glory of the resistance to Trump or the breaking news of Facebook’s mishandling data, the co-dependency of news organizations and algorithmic technologies has remained a dirty topic for most journalists.

Yet the relationship between newsrooms, algorithms, and online audiences is at the root of news organizations’ most central and pressing dilemmas. Can newsrooms produce quality information and make it attractive for algorithmically connected audiences? Can journalists take the time to do in-depth investigations and write the short updates needed to keep their readers engaged? Can news organizations, technology companies, and other institutional actors work together to prevent further polarization and misinformation?

For news organizations, such a reflexive turn would require moving beyond the statement of noble principles to realizing that the devil is in the details. It requires a more careful examination of what abstract journalistic values mean in practice. That means addressing the hard questions of how to make such values consistent with the search for revenue and the prominence of click-driven curation. It means reflecting on their uneasy relationship with Facebook and Google. It requires returning to dusty and messy questions about the enduring role of collective norms and the power dynamics at stake in competitive markets. It entails continuing to examine the reality beyond the hype surrounding Silicon Valley’s algorithms, especially when that hype promises to save the news itself.

Of course, this reflexive turn does not mean abandoning technology altogether. But it is time for newsrooms to make informed choices about how much of their fate to put in algorithmic tools, and understand precisely how news production gets transformed when they do so. As an ethnographer, I can’t wait to see how it happens.

Angèle Christin is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University.

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