April 28, 2017

Perhaps it’s telling that journalism is so absent in The Circle, the movie based on the Dave Eggers novel that paints a dark picture of a future that has nearly arrived.

Emma Watson plays Mae Holland, a recent college graduate who takes up the faith of the Silicon Valley digital-life media company she works for called The Circle. Holland comes to believe that omnipresent artificial intelligence embedded in media technologies can be harnessed for global good — a particular kind of good, for “building the global community,” as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg put it in his recent manifesto.

In the community Zuckerberg is seeking to build, Facebook would take on many of the functions formerly performed by traditional journalism. Zuckerberg writes that Facebook would be used for “keeping us safe, informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”

One of the founders of The Circle, Eamon Bailey, played by Tom Hanks in the movie, delivers a manifesto-like speech on the vision steering the company. “I’m a believer in the perfectibility of human beings,” he says. “I think we can be better. I think we can be perfect or near to it. And when we become our best selves, the possibilities are endless. We can solve any problem. We can cure any disease, end hunger, everything, because we won’t be dragged down by all our weaknesses, our petty secrets, our hoarding of information and knowledge. We will finally realize our potential.”

But the movie, like the Zuckerberg manifesto, raises questions about the role humans are really supposed to play in a world where technology, and largely artificial intelligence, pulls so many of the strings.

Writing on the Facebook manifesto, the Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance wrote that Zuckerberg adopts an ambiguous relationship to journalism, celebrating it even as he undercuts it, setting up a “global newsroom run by robot editors and its own readers.” She wrote that, in effect, Zuckerberg was “building a news organization without journalists.”

The Eggers fictional company and the Zuckerberg real-life company promote a vision based on the assumption that artificial intelligence is neutral and one that deeply underplays the fact that the profit motive often runs counter to public interest and civic enrichment. Facebook is a business. It made $8.8 billion in revenue in just one recent quarter. Whatever else it does — including gathering up the money that used to fund journalism — is really beside the point, whatever the founder might write in his manifestos.

Indeed, as Facebook has discovered and as The Circle makes abundantly clear, there are consequences, good and bad, that come of the business being done by digital-life media companies.

Automated systems, which are at the heart of artificial intelligence, can be used to track vulnerable populations, create registries, and claim neutrality without any reference to accountability. Elon media professor Jonathan Albright found evidence that AI is being used to auto-generate videos on YouTube — some 80K so far — in order to harness YouTube’s ranking algorithms to boost certain political viewpoints.

Some of these auto-generated videos are posted to sites as often as every three to four minutes. The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr traced the money behind these AI practices by following the links. After Googling “mainstream media is…,” she found that Google’s autocomplete suggestions included “fake,” “dead,” “dying,” which led her to follow Google’s suggested links to CNSNews.com, which in turn led her to question: “how had it, an obscure site I’d never heard of, dominated Google’s search algorithm on the topic?” Cadwalladr found that CNSNews.com is largely funded by hedgefund billionaire Robert Mercer, supporter of Trump and Bannon and in turn, Breitbart News.

These practices disrupt our fundamental belief in a “marketplace of ideas,” where the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse.

We can become convinced that there is widespread support for ideas, when our perception of that support is being manufactured through the auto-generation of videos that influence trending topics and most-viewed materials. These practices make it nearly impossible to sort the real from the artificially generated voice of the public, disrupting both the ecosystem of the marketplace of ideas, and our ability to believe in it.

And yet Zuckerberg — one of our contemporary media titans — doesn’t seem to fully reckon with the old adage that media shapes the message. TV produces news that’s spectacular, where big personalities yell at each other and where programming is dominated by blood, floods and fires.

The Internet, social media and their artificial intelligence algorithms, shape the news, too. That’s a topic Zuckerberg might take up in his next manifesto.

Journalism, as we still teach it, is about investigation, context, the need to know. It’s about people trained to make judgments about the truth value of material.

The Circle delivers a welcome challenge to the idea that technology is neutral. The platforms and tools are shaped by human values, which are in turn amplified through their use. It reminds us that it is high time for those of us who believe in democratic ideals to think about what it means in the digital era to put our faith not in companies nor in the systems they create, but in our collective ability to generate knowledge and make the best decisions for the common good. We believe that publics, rather than bots, can best produce the knowledge that is needed for a healthy public sphere, rather than for a private Circle.

Lynn Clark is Chair and Professor of Media, Film, and Journalism Studies Department, and Adrienne Russell is Graduate Director and Associate Professor of Media, Film, and Journalism Studies Department at the University of Denver.

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