Algorithms in the news–why digital media literacy matters

Ben Williamson

Much of our work on Code Acts in Education over the past few years has focused on the work that algorithms do (and what they are made to do and by who) in relation to learning, policy and practice. But the work of algorithms extends far beyond education of course. The sociologist David Beer–a notable scholar of the ‘social power of algorithms’–has pointed out that there has been a startling increase in the amount of media coverage on algorithms over the last year. I thought it might be interesting to see whether different newspapers take distinctive editorial perspectives on the calculative devices that now play such a significant role in our lives. Below I have captured some results of simple Google searches using the ‘inurl:’ search feature to search the content of the websites of some of the UK’s best-known newspapers, just really as a test to see if any distinctive obvious patterns emerge. And I’m fully aware that Google results are highly contingent on the searcher and the date, time and location of the search. I even did a few of these searches more than once and got different results–which says a lot about how information is curated algorithmically, and why new digital media literacy approaches to news consumption and information access are going to be crucial in coming years.

The Guardian
Of all the newspapers I’ve searched, The Guardian returns the most results. Although Google reports over 10,000 search results, only 70 entries are actually displayed.


Notably, of those results the top return is an article by Cathy O’Neill, author of the recent book Weapons of Math Destruction and a fierce critic of how algorithm-driven big data is affecting everyday life. A review of that book is the third result. Other results seem to indicate a largely critical take on algorithms from The Guardian, with coverage on calls for greater scrutiny of algorithms and their role in spreading false information. The Guardian certainly appears to take the most critical editorial line, with an emphasis on the connections between algorithms and politics. If we wanted to get categorical, perhaps we could say The Guardian‘s editorial line is to treat the algorithm as a governor.

The Telegraph
Switching to The Telegraph, we can see quite a different set of results.


The top result here is about the use of algorithms in cosmetics production, followed by a story about inserting algorithmic techniques into marketing strategy. Some of the other pieces focus on lie-detection algorithms, ‘anti-elitism’ school selection algorithms, and a quantum computer that can solve algorithms. The search apparently returned over 5000 results, though only 56 were displayed. Just from these results, it looks as though The Telegraph treats the algorithm as a useful scientist whose expertise is helping society.

The Sun
The Sun returned far fewer results, at around 500 (of which 50 displayed), though the vast majority of these were associated with its Striker cartoon strip.


However, scanning through the first few pages of the results, The Sun has covered Angela Merkel’s critical comments about algorithms, and the use of Instagram data to identify indicators of depression among users, and algorithmic surveillance techniques used by the CIA. Of Google results for algorithms in The Sun, only 4 news stories appeared. In short, The Sun is largely disinterested in algorithms in terms of newsworthiness.

The Mirror
Like The Sun, The Mirror has very limited coverage of algorithms. Of 500 results, only 63 displayed but many of these were not actually content from The Mirror site. Still, it had more news about algorithms than The Sun.


The Mirror seems at first glance to focus on algorithms as scientifically reliable techniques. One of the results returned refers to any reader interested in the maths of algorithms as a ‘brain-box’–so perhaps we could say the editorial line of The Mirror is to treat algorithms in terms of brainy expertise.

The Daily Mail
Finally, for now anyway, The Daily Mail. Over 57,000 search results, of which 66 displayed.


First look suggests that, other than in its piece about algorithmic trading, generally favourable coverage of algorithms, such as in crowdsourcing maps for natural disasters, stopping suicide, and anticipating terrorism. Algorithms as problem-solvers might be one way of categorizing its editorial line.

However, when I repeated the same search about an hour later, the top results were rather different.


Now I could learn that algorithms are making us small-minded, that AI can predict the future, and that algorithms can detect prejudice from body language. The Daily Mail is certainly not disinterested in algorithms–the result returns are pretty high compared to the tabloids, and the Mail does frequently re-post scientific content from sources like The Conversation–but by no means does it adopt the kind of critical line found in The Guardian.

Critical digital media literacy
Certainly this quick scan of the newspaper coverage on algorithms indicates that a deeper study would be worthwhile. It perhaps also gives us some clues about diverse perspectives in relation to algorithms from different parts of the news media landscape. Algorithms have been a pretty big news event in relation to Brexit and the US elections–but this social and political power of algorithms doesn’t appear very well covered except by The Guardian. Contrast that with the New York Times:


Here, there is much more emphasis on making algorithms accountable, the involvement of algorithms in fake news and clickbait. That The Guardian and the NY Times are on to these kinds of stories is maybe not surprising given their political leanings and target audience. However, if we genuinely are concerned that algorithms are involved in political life by filtering and curating how we access information, then it’s perhaps concerning that these issues are much less well covered in papers from alternative political perspectives. Even what we know about filter bubbles and algorithmic curation is itself filtered and curated. The Daily Mail has covered this issue, but it didn’t show up in the Google results until I conducted a second search. Why? The mutability of theses search results also indicates that any careful study along these lines would have to pay close attention to methods in order to achieve  stable results.

From an educational perspective, the diverse ways in which algorithms are presented in the news is interesting because it suggests very different ways in which people might learn about algorithms in their everyday access to news. Many educators have long been committed to forms of digital and media literacy (part of our problem today is that the alt-right have colonized critical media literacy approaches to mainstream media). Developing forms of digital media literacy that attend to the role and power of algorithms in political and cultural life now appears to be real priority that will require dedicated attention in 2017.

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