(b. Tehran 1976, lives and works in New York),
oil on linen, 72 x 108 inches (2010).
Courtesy of the artist.
and more, proprietary algorithms rather than newsroom editors
determine which news stories circulate widely, raising serious
concerns about transparency and accountability in determinations of
illustrate the power of
algorithms to control the flow of
information, consider the example of what happened to the digital
record of an academic conference that I attended last year.
The event brought together the field's leading figures for two days of scholarly panels and discussions.
Many of the participants, including those in a session I moderated, raised questions about the impact of Big Tech companies such as Google and Facebook on the future of journalism and criticized how corporate news media,
...often impose narrow definitions of newsworthiness.
In other words, the conference was like many others I've attended, except that due to the pandemic we met virtually via Zoom.
After the conference concluded, its organizers uploaded video recordings of the keynote session and more than twenty additional hours of conference presentations to a YouTube channel created to make those sessions available to a wider public.
Several weeks later, YouTube removed all of the conference videos, without any notification or explanation to the conference organizers.
As MintPress News reported, an academic conference at which many participants raised warnings about,
Despite the organizers' subsequent formal appeals,
YouTube refused to restore any of the deleted content;
instead, it declined to acknowledge the content was ever
posted in the first place.
Thinking about YouTube's power to delete the public video record of an academic conference, without explanation, initially reminded me of the "memory holes" in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In Orwell's dystopian novel, memory holes efficiently whisk away for destruction any evidence that might conflict with or undermine the government's interests, as determined by the Ministry of Truth.
But I also found myself recalling a theory of news production and distribution that enjoyed popularity in the 1950s but has since fallen from favor.
I've come to understand YouTube's removal of the conference videos as (a new form of) gatekeeping, the concept developed by David Manning White and Walter Gieber in the 1950s to explain how newspaper editors determined what stories to publish as news.
White studied the decisions of a wire editor at a small midwestern newspaper, examining the reasons that the editor, whom White called "Mr. Gates," gave for selecting or rejecting specific stories for publication.
Mr. Gates rejected some stories for practical reasons:
But in 18 of the 423 decisions that White examined, Mr. Gates rejected stories for political reasons, rejecting stories as "pure propaganda" or "too red," for example.
White concluded his 1950 article by emphasizing,
In 1956, Walter Gieber conducted a similar study, this time examining the decisions of 16 different wire editors.
Gieber's findings refuted White's conclusion of gatekeeping as subjective. Instead, Gieber found that, independently of one another, editors made much the same decisions.
Gatekeeping was real, but the editors treated story selection as a rote task, and they were most concerned with what Gieber described as "goals of production" and "bureaucratic routine" - not, in other words, with advancing any particular political agenda.
More recent studies have reinforced and refined Gieber's conclusion that professional assessments of "newsworthiness," not political partisanship, guide news workers' decisions about what stories to cover.
The gatekeeping model fell out of favor as newer theoretical models - including "framing" and "agenda setting" - seemed to explain more of the news production process.
In an influential 1989 article, sociologist Michael Schudson described gatekeeping as,
The gatekeeping model was problematic, he wrote, because,
In that flawed view "news" is preformed, and the gatekeeper,
Although White and others had noted that "gatekeeping" occurs at multiple stages in the news production process, Schudson's critique stuck.
With the advent of the Internet, some scholars attempted to revive the gatekeeping model.
New studies showed how audiences increasingly act as gatekeepers, deciding which news items to pass along via their own social media accounts.
But, overall, gatekeeping seemed even more dated:
Fast forward to the present and Singer's optimistic assessment appears more dated than gatekeeping theory itself.
Instead, the Internet, and social media in particular, encompass numerous limiting "gates," fewer and fewer of which are operated by news organizations or journalists themselves.
Incidents such as YouTube's wholesale removal of the media literacy conference videos are not isolated.
In fact, they are increasingly common as privately-owned companies and their media platforms wield ever more power to regulate who speaks online and the types of speech that are permissible.
Independent news outlets have documented,
Some Big Tech companies' decisions have made headline news.
After the 2020 presidential election, for example, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram restricted the online communications of Donald Trump and his supporters:
But decisions to deplatform Donald Trump and suspend Parler differ in two fundamental ways from most other cases of online content regulation by Big Tech companies.
"Thought Police" by Ali Banisadr,
oil on linen, 82 x 120 inches (2019).
Courtesy of the artist.
This last point was not a focus of the resulting news coverage, but it matters a great deal for understanding the stakes in other cases, where the decision to filter content - in effect, to silence voices and throttle conversations - were made by algorithms, rather than humans.
Increasingly the news we encounter is the product of both the daily routines and professional judgments of journalists, editors, and other news professionals and the assessments of relevance and appropriateness made by artificial intelligence programs that have been developed and are controlled by private for-profit corporations that do not see themselves as media companies much less ones engaged in journalism.
When I search for news about "rabbits gone wild" or the Equality Act on Google News, an algorithm employs a variety of confidential criteria to determine what news stories and news sources appear in response to my query.
Google News does not produce any news stories of its own but, like Facebook and other platforms that function as news aggregators, it plays an enormous - and poorly understood - role in determining what news stories many people see.
Recall that Schudson criticized the gatekeeping model for,
Because news was constructed, not prefabricated, the gatekeeping model failed to address the complexity of the news production process, Schudson contended.
That critique, however, no longer applies to the increasingly common circumstances in which corporations such as Google and Facebook, which do not practice journalism themselves, determine what news stories members of the public are most likely to see - and what news topics or news outlets those audiences are unlikely to ever come across, unless they actively seek them out.
In these cases, Google, Facebook, and other social media companies have no hand - or interest - in the production of the stories that their algorithms either promote or bury.
Without regard for the basic principles of ethical journalism as recommended by the Society of Professional Journalists,
The new gatekeepers claim content neutrality while promoting news stories that often fail glaringly to fulfil even one of the SPJ's ethical guidelines.
This problem is compounded by the reality that it is impossible for a contemporary version of David Manning White or Walter Gieber to study gatekeeping processes at Google or Facebook:
As April Anderson and I have previously reported, a class action suit filed against YouTube in August 2019 by LGBT content creators could,
Google/YouTube have sought to dismiss the case on the grounds that its distribution algorithms are "not content-based."
"Trust in the Future" by Ali Banisadr,
oil on linen, 82 x 120 inches (2017).
Courtesy of the artist.
To be accountable and transparent is one of guiding principles for ethical journalism, as advocated by the Society of Professional Journalists.
News gatekeeping conducted by proprietary algorithms crosses wires with this ethical guideline, producing grave threats to the integrity of journalism and the likelihood of a well-informed public.
Most often when Google, Facebook, and other Big Tech companies are considered in relation to journalism and the conditions necessary for it to fulfill its fundamental role as the "Fourth Estate" - holding the powerful accountable and informing the public - the focus is on how Big Tech has thoroughly appropriated the advertising revenues on which most legacy media outlets depend to stay in business.
The rise of algorithmic news gatekeeping should be just as great a concern. Technologies driven by artificial intelligence (AI) reduce the role of human agency in decision making.
This is often touted, by advocates of AI, as a selling point:
Critical studies of algorithmic bias, including,
...advise us to be wary
of how easy it is to build longstanding human prejudices
into "viewpoint neutral" algorithms that, in turn, add new
layers to deeply-sedimented structural inequalities.
We must exert all possible pressure
to force corporations such as Google and Facebook to make
their algorithms available for third-party scrutiny; at the
same time, we must do more to educate the public about this
new and subtle wrinkle in the news production process.
But the stakes are too high to wait on the sidelines for others to solve the problem.
I recommend four proactive responses, presented in increasing order of engagement:
Fortunately, our human brains can employ new information in ways that algorithms cannot.
Understanding the influential roles of algorithms on our lives - including how they operate as gatekeepers of the news stories we are most likely to see - allows us to take greater control of our individual online experiences.
Based on greater individual awareness and control, we can begin to organize collectively to expose and oppose algorithmic bias and censorship...