Sofie Hvitved: ‘We need ethical algorithms to ensure that the good content reaches the wide audiences’

An exclusive interview on the Future of the Media
Sofie Hvitved: ‘We need ethical algorithms to ensure that the good content reaches the wide audiences’

Sofie Hvitved is Futurist and Special Advisor in Media, Technology and Sport at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies where she is head of the project Future Nordic Media Landscape 2030. She is strongly engaged in the intersection between media, technology and entertainment and has a solid strategic background in the media industry.

She is among the most interesting persons in Europe to talk to about the Future of the Media, the role we can play as citizens, directly and indirectly by who we vote for, to shape our societies and how technology can remain a safe asset.

I am extremely grateful to her for her time, for sharing her knowledge and fascinating views, and for pushing the Future Media agenda!

 

Sofie, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview! Do we start by you telling us about who you are and what you do?

Well, I am a futurist at the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, where my primary interest – and what I’m working a lot with – is the future of Media and Technology, and everything in between.

That’s exciting! What does a futurist exactly do when it comes to media?

What we do when it comes to media is the same as we do in all industries: we look into the uncertainties and the impact on the different futures. The title of our institute is also “for futures studies” because we do not believe that there is only one future. So, one of our main objectives is to open the mind of the people that we work with in order to be more aware of the different futures that we could approach, and make sure that we can actually create the future we prefer as well as trying to navigate in all the uncertainties.

 

Tech and Media: the key elements

When it comes to the intersection of media versus tech and the future of it, what would you say are the biggest questions, the biggest issues that you feel we should address now to create the future?

It’s a super important moment right now. I have been working with the media for the last 20 years. I think so many things have happened that the biggest challenge for the media industry right now is understanding and conceptualising the structural changes and the logic that we see. Right now, it’s mostly old logic that we use to build on all sorts of media silos, like TV and radio. In many ways we tend to use an old-school way of talking about it and understanding it. I think that one of the most important things to be aware of is how do we create a common language on talking about how the logic is now and how it’s going to be! What media landscape are we creating? We need to meet as an industry to talk about this, but also to expand the industry.

 

I have a feeling that the media has been traditionally bad at dealing with tech. I mean this development right now is not the only technological disruption that the media has faced – from the radio and television and so on – and still they have always been after the developments.

Yes, which is really a shame because they should be in front of this. About 15 years ago when I was Project Manager of a big conference in the Nordics called New Media Days, many in the media industry said that this is not going to affect us so much, we have a really good business model. But I don’t think that traditional media has “a right to win”. They need to be more upfront and understand the new structural changes and the way that technology and the digitalisation of society are changing everything. I’m not saying that they should let go of all the principles on a journalistic level or the quality, but they must think in a totally different way, in terms of outreach and platforms.

There is an interesting map of the media universe that an American Media Professor and self-acclaimed Media Universe Cartographer, Evan Shapiro, has done, which gives a good sense of the complexity of where we’re heading in the battle of the eyeballs. If media companies don’t understand that, if they don’t understand the way that we need to simplify, personalise, make it easy for people to use and make user-centred media – then they won’t be future-proof in the media industry.

 

The Metaverse is coming

How do you think the media should address the algorithms and the metaverse? Should they try to learn them so well that they tame them and be ahead of the curve? Or should they fight for a structural regulation to protect democracy and the citizens from going down the rabbit hole of the personalised feed?

It’s a combination of the two because we’ve come to a point where we do need regulation. Big Tech is already controlling huge parts of where the democratic public conversation takes place, and the algorithms of Silicon Valley and China are building up. Those values do not support the values of most media companies, but it’s the only way to reach a large audience right now. We can’t avoid using it. As a media, you shouldn’t just say “I don’t want to use Facebook” because we can see from the ones that have tried that, that it doesn’t really work.

So, it’s all about being much more aware of how it works and then, in my opinion, start working on creating some alternative algorithms. I call it ‘public service algorithms’ – and I know that the BBC, for example, has been working on that, and a lot of the big media companies have tried working on it but failed. It’s super difficult but there are still a lot of initiatives going on and I think it is very important that we continue to see if we can find alternatives for the betterment of society. We must try and figure out how we can use these algorithms.

So yes, there will be regulation for sure. There will be regulation on transparency of the algorithms, on how Facebook can operate, and the ‘black box’ will open a little bit – it has to. I believe this is going to happen on a European level. And I think Facebook is paying attention. It’s interesting to see Facebook just announced that they have chosen Europe to be the place where they will build the first phase of their journey towards the metaverse.

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The Danish government has also started a huge movement on regulating Big Tech. Our Minister of Culture said that the biggest freedom fight of our times is the fight against Big Tech. So, there is this revolution going on right now, but unfortunately, nobody has the answer. And I think that relates back to this whole complexity and the fact that we simply do not understand it well enough, we do not have a common language to understand these things that are going on.

So, one thing is the regulation, but the other thing is the innovation and the R&D and how we can actually create these new algorithms because, at least in Denmark, there are almost no initiatives on this. The money that the government has been giving for innovation on the new infrastructure is very limited compared to those being given to produce content in traditional media. And traditional media is so strong and has so much power that it seems impossible to disrupt this in a way. I really think we have to see the urgency in this situation.

 

Ethical Algorithms

The words that stick out about responsibility and “ethical” algorithms and public service, bring us back to a discussion – that 20 years ago was very big – about the role of public service media and the financing of the media. 

What is the role that public service media can play now for democracy, for leading the landscape, for solving the financing issue? How do you see the role of the public service media in this new landscape?

I feel public service media still has a huge role to play, at least now. And regarding the economical side of it, it’s a huge issue that there haven’t been found any good solutions. So, that’s why we, even more, need to support it from a public service side.

One of the impacts that we see when we are looking into the future is how important it is going to be to reach people. You can make a lot of good content, but nobody will read it, because you cannot reach the audience. We are going to see an even more massive amount of content as soon as automated AI content generators like GPT-3 are going to be more available and more developed. We are going to see a massive input with lots of content that the users will have to navigate in.

So, in my opinion, the public service media should of course continue to create quality content that is good for democracy and good for the public, but it should put a much greater focus on trying to find out a good way to serve the public in giving them the information and creating ‘good algorithms’. If the good quality content doesn’t reach the audience, then it doesn’t matter. So, we really must focus on this; on how we make services that ensure that this content is curated and available. I definitely think that this involves both personalization and high ethical standard in order to be sure that it’s something that fits every individual but also doesn’t take them down the rabbit hole.

So bottom line, we can’t just take algorithms and apply them in our media, because as is also being underlined with the Facebook Files coming from whistleblower Frances Haugen that this is not really the right thing to do. And as she also states, a lot of things could be done. But the problem is that as soon as people start making better feeds and recommender systems feeding good news, people stop using Facebook as much. So, in my opinion, we should focus all our attention right now on making something that people can actually use and feel like it gives them the right things, like being a digital assistant in a good way. Because, speaking for the Nordics, we are all excellent in creating content, but now it’s time to be good also at the more technical part too.

 

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I think a big challenge for the media that you do not hear so often is the volume that you very wisely brought up. The user generated content is so much and feeding the system at a speed that no publisher can keep up with.

One thing is the whole creator economy coming up with all individuals being able to create their own content and make their own personal media brands. We see that from the traditional media industry; a lot of journalists go out and create their own media – on newsletters, on podcasts – creating their own outreach. We have this whole forest with these small media brands, and then we have the big media companies – and in the middle, we have all the rest of the media. I think that if I was in the middle, I would be a bit afraid right now. With all the content coming from the creator economy and the content that is going to come out with automation. Automation is going to change the name of the game of how we make and produce media – in the whole ecosystem. There are so many tools out there that can enhance the content and be a help to the journalist and the content producer in a way that we haven’t seen before. So, that’s another piece of advice: not to be afraid of using these tools, but of course, be very aware of the logic behind them.

 

Journalistic Education

How do you see the education of journalists nowadays? What is a journalist today has nothing to do with what was a journalist even 5 years ago. Are the universities up-to-speed with those changes? Are the new journalists equipped with that knowledge to face all those challenges?

Maybe it’s going to change something that we will start having journalists and people in the media industry that will understand the dynamics and the logic of how the media landscape is shaped. But of course, none of the schools today is truly up-to-date. They are trying and they have good initiatives going on. For instance, a fellow called Andreas Markmann Andreasen from the Danish university, SDU, has made a project about automation in the media industry and how it will change everything in the ecosystem, including advice for nine ethical ways of working with automation. I think this is something all journalists should be very aware of because it will be part of how they work. But they should also focus on what they do well in making content.

We have so many content producers in the media ecosystem. I attended a big cultural symposium in Denmark, and we were discussing the role of culture. A lot of the focus was on technology, media and democracy and what is the role of art and culture. And most people said we need to be better in using tech but also in finding out how to do it in a correct way and maybe play a role in where we’re heading as a society.

 

Media Financing

We are talking about paywalls, being good for the ones who can implement them and make them work because they secure some financing. On the other hand, they create the silos of quality content that it’s only reachable by people who can pay. What’s your opinion about paywalls and how do you think the industry should approach this topic?

I think that paywalls should only be a kind of transition solution because it’s necessary for the media companies to survive right now. But it’s not a very optimal long-term solution if you look at democracy. We can already see how social media and algorithms are creating a more polarized society. The paywalls are also increasing that polarity.

There’s an interesting article from The Atlantic called ‘How the bobos broke America‘ about the cultural elite. We – and I count myself as part of that – think that we are so open-minded and want to change the world but in fact, we are only creating our own little bubbles, and I don’t think that this is good for society; to make these elitarian media bubbles where only the few can pay – especially when it’s part of public service. If you’re a private company you are free to do whatever you want, but if it’s part of the public interest, then things should change.

So, how do we rethink the whole structure of this, you might ask? There are a lot of new ideas coming up – like getting public tokens to ‘pay’ for the news for instance, which unfortunately would probably push a lot of clickbait. It’s all about looking at the mechanisms, looking at the logic, and seeing how we can actually move this in a way that we create content that is accessible for people.

The polarization of our society is such a huge problem, so being able as media to support democracy and public conversation is a huge opportunity. That’s why we have to be very aware of that with the new technologies and platforms popping up. For instance, the Metaverse, the virtual and the physical world getting closer and closer, and Facebook claiming to be a metaverse in five years – all these things that are affecting our lives now will affect it even more in the future as we come closer with VR, AR, emotion AI, IoT and constant surveillance. With all these things coming closer every day, we really have to get this right.

We have already seen a lot of countries in Europe turning against democracy, and I think that this is a real threat. There are a lot of possibilities in using these things, but we have to get it right and navigate in the best way. I know that all in the media industry are trying their best, we just have to cooperate better.

 

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Cooperation is the key. I think that the big piece missing from the media – they are fragmatised in their small countries, and have no unified approach in the same way Google and Facebook have.

Well, public service media and commercial media are still working against each other, instead of figuring out what they could do together. I think that the media industry is a bit tricky because it’s been so privileged and powerful for such a long time that it’s hard to change that.

I had a big debate with a handful of media bosses and experts a couple of months ago. One of the things is that when Google, for instance, or Facebook have so many billion dollars to invest in this, at the same time the Danish media industry, for example, has so scarce resources compared to that. So, even though I’m super excited that Norway is spending 30 million euros on a responsible media project, it’s still just a drop in the water. At the same time, Facebook is also giving 50 million dollars to responsible algorithms, trying to see if they can look into representation and diversity. And even though this shows that they understand that responsibility is important (a least in a PR sense), these amounts are way too small.

 

I think the bad thing with all these good initiatives from big players is that they are so much about charity. They do not solve the problem, they confirm that there is a problem.

The weird thing is that they are the main actors actually providing money to the development of innovation in the media industry. For instance, there is an institute in Denmark called the Constructive Institute, which was founded in an effort to produce constructive journalism. They got funded by the Google News Initiative (DNI) to make a constructive algorithm that can identify constructive news, which is interesting.

But why does that have to come from Google? Because these kinds of initiatives cannot get support within the Danish funding system. So, we’re in this sort of limbo right now where there are so many structural challenges that make it hard to do ‘real’ innovation unless we use Big Tech funding – and give Big Tech the advantage of knowing what we are doing.

Personally, I’m very tech positive, I love tech, I love AI, I think data can be used for good – but I’m also very aware that there are big issues, but it’s still important that we embrace it and not just say that Big Tech is bad. Why not figure out how we could challenge Big Tech? So we have better options to both compete and cooperate.

 

Regulation and Democracy

One of the biggest politicians in Europe on this topic is Danish, Margrethe Vestager, and as a country, you have a history of dealing with all those things in a very structural way. How do you see the role of Europe in this game? Do you think they have done well so far or could they could do more? What do you think could change on a European level to help us deal with all those things and promote democracy?

I think the EU plays a huge role. I went to a conference a couple of weeks ago where Vestager was talking about European democracy, and I asked her the same question: How can we progress in this case with innovation in the media industry? She answered that they are working on it and I do believe that they’re doing a good job. She has done an amazing job in this fight to make the huge structural issues that exist visible and put focus on accountability. Of course, as always when it involves the EU it takes a long time but they’re trying to push the process. The work they’re doing on the Digital Markets Acts and the Digital Rights Acts are going to have a huge effect on the media industry.

I also believe that as nations and as companies we have to take responsibility. It’s the same thing as in all other industries, for instance with sustainability. I think that being a responsible media on the data side and how you deal with algorithms is going to be the same kind of issue as sustainability, because it’s bad for our planet, it’s bad for our citizens.

Hopefully, the public opinion will also understand these issues and will be able to better navigate them. And we, as companies or organisations, will give them the solutions, because we all have to do something about it. And as an individual, as a consumer, it’s hard to choose when there are no alternatives from the Big Tech solutions. That’s why good algorithms and good digital assistants that people could trust would be an amazing opportunity to work on.

I believe that with the regulation coming from the EU if a company can find solutions for this, it will be steps ahead. Already now, with third-party cookies crumbling and all those things happening in the landscape, the companies that have found a solution to this are many steps ahead of the ones that are still working with third-party cookies.

Leaving the choice for the consumers to navigate in this extremely complex social media and media universe is not fair. Consumers need to be helped a lot more.

The fight against bad algorithms is going to be massive when you look into the future, especially with the emergence of data in our life. As I said in the beginning, we have many futures, and maybe with the regulation coming up, we may see a slowdown in the digitisation of our society. But I don’t believe there are any futures where digitisation will actually stop, because it’s enhancing our lives so much.

 

Privacy for future citizens

I would like to finish with the last question about privacy in general, but also specifically privacy for kids. These kids now are the first generation that is – more or less – fully traceable since the day they are born. They can be the target of algorithms in a way that we were never when we started voting for instance. Do you think that the kids should be another category of citizens, that they should have an extra layer of protection, and how do you see that going in the future?

That’s an interesting aspect. I’m going to a conference about kids’ media and the ‘funny’ thing is that algorithms and privacy are not really part of its programme; it’s all about content again and how you can reach kids digitally. And I find this very disturbing.

We make really good media for kids in Denmark. But how can we protect the kids? We’re posting pictures of our kids naked at the beach, and they have nothing to say about how they’re being presented. As you say, nobody is anonymous anymore. In the future, everybody will want to be anonymous for 15 minutes.

I think it’s a difficult thing to regulate. I find China’s initiative, to limit the time kids can play video games within the weekdays, interesting as a thought experiment. Maybe this kind of restriction will be necessary – but also it’s way too dystopian and removing our personal freedom of choice. We have to figure out how to confront these issues and protect the kids in order for them not to be, as you say, fully traceable. We can see that already now that it’s easy to manipulate because their brains are not fully evolved.

Maybe they would be very good at navigating in diverse content if we helped them to navigate if we make sure we have media literacy. I also think we must understand it from their point of view. We have to understand how it works and figure out how we can actually move it in a direction that we would like it to.

But I think privacy is a huge discussion and I’m totally pro giving power to the people, in the sense of owning your own data. We, as a society, should be able to open and close our data for the organisations we want. Imagine if we had the possibility of having a “data bank” that is in a place not owned by the government or the companies but is somehow safe and our data is not exposed. And if we can just open it for good things – for example, the cultural, media or health industry – and shut it down for the things that we don’t like. That could be amazing, but it’s extremely complex and there are lots of things to be aware of.

I know there are a lot of experts talking about big data versus small data, because should we even have these huge data pools? I think that it’s naive to believe that we’re not going to have them. So why not make them in the best possible way? I do believe that even though blockchain is still not very sustainable the distributed ledger technology is going to open some possibilities that make it possible for us to deal with this in a good way. So, hopefully, we will put more energy into this and find a solution moving on and get the best possible future that we can have.

 

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Dimitra Letsa

Dimitra Letsa

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