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Katharine Sarikakis Exclusive Interview

Katharine Sarikakis: ‘Our kids are the first fully traceable generation of emerging citizens’

Katharine Sarikakis is a Professor at Vienna University and Director of the Media Governance and Industries Research Lab, which is now celebrating 10 years of real-world research. She has held positions of distinction the most recent ones being the Santander Chair of Excellence in 2018 at Carlos III Universidad Madrid, the Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Jean Monnet Chair of European Integration and Media Governance.

One of the many great additions to my life that came through Moonshot News, is Katharine Sarikakis; It has been a great pleasure, honour and -actually lots of fun- to discuss with her about all aspects of life, but of course mainly about those in the intersection of media and technology. Katharine is a very rare combination of attributes: she is a university professor but one with direct contact with the market, with the business and the technology that is driving the changes in our lives.

She is vibrant, knowledgeable and refreshingly authentic. She touches upon topics that people rarely think about, like the ‘right to be let alone, or what do our kids really want when it comes to privacy: and she has the research to prove it.

Katharine, thank you very much for this interview, it is a true honour and pleasure! Let’s start by you telling us about yourself.

I have been full professor at the University of Vienna since 2011. Before that I was for 20 years in the U.K, my last position at the University of Leeds Currently, I am the Director of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence FREuDe at Vienna University. I am originally Greek, with dual citizenship Greek and British and now living in Austria. So my third national affiliation is as a European citizen!

You have worked with academia and the policy world extensively over these years, and recently also chaired the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on the Quality of Journalism Report. So you are in a perfect position to talk about the conditions and the way that European media deal with women and how women in Europe are handling the media landscape.

In collaboration with teams and colleagues, we have over the years been doing quite a few studies about the status of women in communications. I had the honour to participate in the major update of possibly the most pioneering study ever in the field

One of the biggest began in the United States in the 1970s and looked exactly at the status of women in the media – both in academia and professions. Its update, thirty years later, came to a somewhat “unorthodox” conclusion that – no matter what the progress in the media – both in the professions and in media content: women would not occupy positions higher than one in three, or one in four. We called it the ratio of recurrent and reiforced residuum or R3 These things apply, for example, in Hollywood. You see women in the beginning of many films, they die or are sick or wicked, but then for the rest of the movie the guys are central characters. Or you have action films where you have four men and one woman.

So, what does this mean? There are of course disagreements about this conclusion, and findings can change, but we see that it is very difficult without policies that tackle the so-called status quo to see progress for women in the media and in academia – women in institutions that deal with media, journalism, communication technologies and culture, the meaning-making industries.

My feeling is that unfortunately that sector is very much behind, compared to tech for instance. Perhaps because it’s quite new and the area was not already occupied by middle-aged men, In the media, academia and all the cultural production the situation is still very grim. Do you have any input or any opinion on whether European policy and the European Union are taking big steps or small steps in improving the situation at a European level?

When it comes to media, broadcasters and the internet, the European Union has limited itself to issuing guidelines, pursuing not even a co-regulation agenda which would have meant that both these kinds of actors – media, platforms and so on, plus governments and the EU – would together regulate the communication environment. There are fragments of gender equality in various legislative provisions, such as regulation when it comes to equality and dignity at work, but there’s nothing specific for the media.

And when it comes to content of the media then the issues are even thornier, because of a knee-jerk reaction: ‘you’re interfering with press freedom’.

There was an initiative about 15 years ago on drafting a kind of regulation for discrimination against women in the EU, but the reaction by the media was very negative and so this political opportunity was lost. That was a bold step at the time.


What we do have now is this soft policy on gender equality. There are initiatives and institutions that try to survey and monitor how many women are at which positions, and what are the conditions of work. It is a synergy of many actors. But although this is absolutely necessary, by itself it does not resolve any issues, even though it exercises some pressure.

We operate with the assumption that we live in a democratic society where the ‘being named and shamed’ has some effect, so this effect can very easily be cancelled. We see this in the eastern part of Europe. We’ve been seeing the effects of the fragility of democracy in Hungary for example, and in Poland, where women’s rights, free speech rights and all that have been rolled back for many years.

What people don’t understand – and this is also the responsibility of the media – is that once you accept to “be not so equal” about one social group, this can automatically be translated into “what’s the next group” and it can expand. So, although there is some understanding that we don’t want the State to regulate whom the media should employ, there must be also some kind of mechanism that holds companies accountable.

You talked about the discrimination in content. Do you have any specific idea that you can share with us about which policies could be implemented or are in the way of being implemented? What is that we define as discrimination in content?

Once anybody – with the exception of journalists – refers to regulating content, then the reaction from many is that once we start meddling in the content policy then we are opening the gates to censorship for things that are necessary to know. I suppose that women know that better than other group because in earlier days, for example, women could not access information on planned parenthood. Or even now – in the era of algorithms and platforms – depending on who designs algorithms and how they design them, if content is deemed inappropriate it can exclude people from accessing it.

What we do want is a context and a structural environment that not only accepts or tolerates women as a demographic group that’s been historically marginalised from having a voice, but rather expects this group to have an equal public voice. And in tech, even though it feels like we’re making huge leaps, let’s not forget that Silicon Valley is a very male-dominated place. It sets the tone and creates a culturally biased hierarchy that needs to be tackled.

The biggest role is to be played by public speech. And the biggest actors in public speech are the media. So, the job Moonshot.News is doing, is an example to look at. It’s great practice, it has clarity and it makes an effort to rebalance what’s out there. This is the kind of stuff we need more of.

When it comes to tech, we have new digital “haves” and “have nots”, new digital discriminations. There are so multiple levels, all built on older, pre-existing inequalities. So, for me, the question is how to be able to recognize that – not taking technology as something that is neutral, gender-free and biased-free – and then design with the eyes in the future, meaning preparing the next generations. And I think these generations are doing a pretty good job by themselves.

That would be my next question. As you have lots of interactions from the university with the next generation, do you see that they have the same worries, the same experiences that we had versus this male-dominated universe or if things are better? How would you make the comparison?

I would say that some things are solved for younger people and some things remain. I remember, for example, that a lot of my female colleagues were doing women’s studies. Now, a lot of these women programs do not exist or are at risk, so there’s no space for this kind of discussions. Therefore, there’s no space for this debate about gender discrimination. Also, our cultures are very much built on the idea of individualism and “I can do everything I want”.

And when you raise this issue in a classroom, there’s a lot of resistance. There’s actually more resistance from women than from men, and this has to do with a “not me” and “I am not a victim” attitude. By the time women finish university, for example, they enter the marketplace with an already existing salary gap and discrimination of up to 30%, depending on the country. And then this reality hits them very badly.

We are also educated from a very young age with a sexualization of culture that a lot of what we achieve is based on how we look and how we make, or not make, ourselves available to be imagined as sexual objects. If you smile too much you’re always seen in a position of an assistant and if you smile too little you’re placed in a position of a bitch, or you can even become invisible. So, it’s hard to manage this stuff.

But at the same time, although women have come ahead in the society, you see the young men who are fully confused. Because on the one hand we expect from them – as society, media and culture – to be masculine, but on the other hand they don’t know what it is exactly that they’re supposed to do – if it’s ok, for example, to cry in public and get emotional. So, they have it easier to accept women in power but at the same time come complications in personal identity.

However, I should say that this generation and every next generation is absolutely remarkable. We see that young people are for example fixated on their screens, but at the same time you see them out there doing Extinction Rebellion or Fridays for Future or joining women’s movements in the streets. This culture, for me as an educator, is a pleasure, and it is a joy of my profession to see that and interact with every young generation which enters my classroom.

Talking about the next generation’s pleasure of tech brings the obvious question: where does privacy sit with all of that?

Nowhere! There is little privacy these days – as anonymity – unless one has the – amazing- technical skills for it. Does this mean that this is right? No. We have the GDPR now in Europe, which is one of the strongest regulations globally. So we are of course glad that there is such a thing out there for protecting personal data. However, this is one of the shortcomings of policies, because they have to operationalize concepts that are bigger, like human rights, for example, they are reduced to fragments of what the ‘right to privacy’ actually encompasses.

One of the biggest problems is that children – meaning emerging citizens – and youth have never been really consulted, have never been included at any negotiation table and are not taken into account when designing policies. The problem is that the oeuvre of protecting privacy is, yet again, left on the shoulders of families, schools and individuals, which is a Goliath and David situation. The global tech and social media platforms run the show. And I’m not sure that David has the tricks to bring the Goliath down.

Katharine Sarikakis

Privacy for children and young people is the sense of maintaining control of “who has access to me”, to my interiority, to my information. This is the one big issue, which is the closest that can come to any philosophical account we have about the concept of privacy. The other thing is that children say “Google knows it all” or “the Internet knows it all” – identical phrases, from children in refugee camps to children in Austria for example. The claims of children are “why do you need to track me” and “leave me alone” addressing the social media companies.

One of the milestone pieces of scholarship, published in the late 1800s, was “the right to be let alone” by Warren and Brandeis and was a position about the right of the individual to interiority. The authors connected this to the understanding that you have to have a space where you withdraw and you have your own ideas but also ultimately experiences away from the gaze of the media or the public.

Today, we talk about the ‘privacy paradox’ – that we know we’re being followed or watched on social media platforms and on our communications but we still use the media. As a society, we seem to not take into account the very simple fact that children express themselves openly and all this information creates a digital footprint that will never be erased. Moreover, the sense of ‘choice transparency or consent is an illusional one when it comes to select whether to use a platform or not. We all know, and children even clearer and more consciously perhaps, that if you don’t sign and say yes to the terms and conditions, condition, which “no one reads”, you can’t use the services. This is of course no true choice.

So, the children and young people know all that quite well on the one hand, but of course they cannot always understand or know the long term ramifications and consequences. Indeed, no one does. For example, some children think that the good thing about Snapchat is that when you ‘delete stuff,’ then it is deleted. That is not true; it is deleted for you and from your account but not from the company’s servers. And children do not understand of course the reasons why Snapchat has to know their location to let them use its services. But the political claims, what society is called to do, is very clear for children. I think this is where we should be heading to. We should be listening to children, to what they say.

It is true. The consequences of lack of privacy and of the misuse of those services for children, are much worse than for adults. It can be a huge burden on the shoulders of parents and educators to be left alone to tackle with all those terms and conditions, without even knowing which service the kid is using or where the enemy is.

And there are two more things that we don’t think about very often. There’s a lot of focus on cyber bullying and the effects it has on children, and it is absolutely right to focus on these things.

But we also need to place attention and policies on the question of depriving human beings from the possibility to ‘start afresh’ at any point in their lives, as everything they have done or said exists in the digital world and can be recalled at any time. These are first generations of human beings that are completely traceable and whose lives can become public at any second, if the “controller” decides so. There is a digital trace from the time they are born to when they die, every moment of their life has a digital footprint.

What bothers me – and is not talked about often – is that if we think about the fact that the content you follow and use becomes your bubble, it affects you, but even beyond the fact that you have lost your anonymity, and losing your anonymity in terms of news and information means that democracy becomes even more fragile.

In the analogue days we had the possibility to anonymously read newspapers, of our political or other affiliation. There was anonymity. This came with the possibility to experiment to read counter views. You could read what you wanted. And then you would anonymously vote. Now it is very difficult to maintain this level of autonomy and anonymity, it requires a conscious, proactive and counter-acting will to only purchase the press in its analogue form. Moreover, most information is available online. Add to that the fact children usually do not consume analogue materials, you have the perfect storm for a lifelong surveillance whether by political or equally commercial actors.

So, what does this mean for children? In Austria they vote from the age of 16. What does it mean when the past 16 years have been fully profiled by the platforms and vote is predictable? To me this is morally intolerable, that society can predict on the basis of this kind of surveying, stalking of a human being’s interests, of their interior world. We must ask ourserves tougher questions. What does it mean for democracy and even for equality?

It is a very common thread in the discussion about how to regulate social media and how social media “regulates” politicians, who have the upper hand and where the limit is? And that is a discussion that we are too late to have I think.

We are delayed. I wouldn’t like to say too late. It is late in the sense that, as you say, the platforms set the scene and then states regulate; what they do is cement that change. Again, this issue of privacy, which is connected to the anonymity of the kind of content you use and consume – and especially in relation to the information and the news, which relates to politics – is very important for children and young people to protect them from technologies and actors generally that do not see them as citizens.

That’s what we’re doing in  the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, a centre tied with a project of looking into European integration as a matter of political project and the place of children and information, especially given all this context of misinformation and news.

So, all the things we have discussed here are connected because without privacy and without anonymity, where necessary, you’re not a free citizen and you don’t have a personal space to develop ideas and your political identity.

In her State of the Union speech, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, talked about how we need to mobilize the youth to create their own vision for Europe. Well, if I am the devil’s advocate for a minute, one does not need to mobilize the youth, because the youth is everywhere, in the streets demonstrating for a future planet, in the universities in exchange programmes, in the workplace listening to global music, on holidays, as volunteers for refugees shelters and so on. All we need is to put all the things they have been saying into action!

It is for sure a very interesting topic to close with; the importance of children for the future and privacy for our future. What does it mean for the next generation that they are fully traceable. It is a subject that we need to discuss more.





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