How data is changing the media landscape

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Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director, Stanford University
Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director, Stanford University

By Sam van Heerden, Masters in Philosophy student



In today’s digital world, big data is becoming central to society’s functioning, and the media is no exception. Journalists can use data to tell new stories about the world we live in and better understand how people consume them. But as with any technology, the datafication of the media presents both opportunities and threats. This plays out in the African context in unique ways, and local media stands at a precipice in trying to deal with these changes.  


This far-reaching topic was explored by Marietje Schaake at this week’s virtual Highway Africa conference hosted by Rhodes University. Schaake is the International Policy Director at Stanford University's Cyber Policy Centre and an International Policy Fellow at Stanford's Institute for Human-Centred Artificial Intelligence in the USA.


“We sit in a moment in which we have to make some pretty crucial decisions about how we shape the coming world,” said the Head of the Journalism and Media Studies Department at Rhodes University, Professor Anthea Garman, during the discussion.


Simply put, data is information represented as numbers, which can reflect patterns of human behaviour. Big data has surged partly because our personal lives, including every post on social media, what we ‘like’, and how we surf the internet, are tracked and recorded by advertising companies like Facebook and Google, which profit from the information.


According to Schaake, the volume of data being generated, and the computing power to analyse it, has increased at a staggering rate.


The media has an integral role to play in this increasingly data-driven world. Journalists can sift through, unpack, and interpret the available data, which can point to stories previously untold. “Data or information alone never tells the full story,” Schaake explained. “For all of the data that we have access to, journalists need to make sense of it, provide context, and interrogate it, the same way that a journalist would any other source.”


But data-driven journalism requires new tasks, skills, and expertise, as well as access to datasets. “A number of people on the African continent, but also globally, have low data literacy,” said Schaake. “The ability to actually make sense of data and data-driven processes can be hindered by the lack of skills or the lack of access to the very proprietary information under the corporate hood.” Although a challenge, she suggested that this lacuna in skills can be filled partly by journalists collaborating with other role players such as data analysts and ethicists.


Media organisations can also benefit by gathering data about their audiences. Through this process, they can better understand how their audiences read and access publications and what content they are interested in. They can also observe how audiences interact with their advertising, which is vital to media’s sustainability in the digital age.


But the flip side of paying attention to the likes and dislikes of the audience is the threat that quality journalism for the public interest becomes replaced by ‘click-bait’ journalism for profit. There is the risk that the media will become dependent on the data-for-profit model that, as protectors of democracy, they should be fighting against. In the online world, citizens’ data can be used against them to manipulate and misinform. Independent and quality journalism is crucial in siphoning out the noise and protecting democracy.


“We've outsourced the building and governing of our information infrastructure and ecosystems to advertising companies,” said Schaake. “I would hope that no one would elect an advertiser to run a country. So why do we allow advertisers to run our online lives? Those companies are designed for different reasons than what the public interest and democracy needs.”


Schaake says that although many media practitioners are critical of data giants such as Facebook and Google, many rely on these platforms to share their stories. “There's a growing integration [of media organisations and advertising giants], even while there are also battles about where revenue should be falling, and over how to sustain an independent, pluralistic, and free media landscape,” said Schaake.


Wedged between the forces of corporations and the media, there is a danger of portraying citizens as passive. “Where is the agency of people in this discussion?” asked Professor Garman.


Schaake replied, suggesting that in the face of data corporations, agency is severely limited. “When it comes to individual agency, we can only expect so much,” she said. “I study digital companies [for a living], but I still find it difficult to know the consequences of my choices when I click ‘yes’ on something. We should not expect that individual internet users can stand up against these giant corporations.”


Legal regulations are central to curbing the power of advertising corporations while protecting citizens against privacy violations and misinformation. But this also comes with challenges. Schaake said the misuses of data could be used as a pretence for repression. Citizens should have data rights and protections, which many African states lack, and they should have access to quality journalism rather than misinformation. But the threats of big data and misinformation can be used by governments as an excuse to clamp down on freedom of expression through internet shutdowns and censorship, especially during politically charged times such as during elections. This threat is particularly concerning for Africa, where in 2019 alone there were 25 incidents of partial or total internet shutdowns documented.


Schaake explained that the changing media landscape in Africa would be significant not only for African countries, but for the world: “The way in which the population of the African continent will come online – whether they will be protected, whether their data will be used for good or malign purposes – will be crucial not only for people's own safety and freedoms, but also for the balance of power between democracy and autocracy in the world,” she concluded.


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