The Ambiguous Role of Big Data and Algorithms in Modern News Production

Jakob Jean Heldager Pedersen & Mads Nobel Danborg

Student thesis: Master thesis


In the 21st century, big data and algorithms are key providers and organizers of digital information. Big data and algorithms play a vital role in the utilization of the web’s virtually endless databases by facilitating the sorting and processing of vast quantities of intangible information. A problem emerges, however, in this technologically based foundation for knowledge production that is comprised of latent and invisible information as criteria for relevance. The algorithm exercises decisions using information and assessments unknown to the user, and in doing so becomes non- transparent form of knowledge production that largely excludes user input from the process. Moreover, algorithms do not isolate their influence on the ‘general’ user exclusively but also on journalists, who have traditionally acted as society’s watchdogs.
This study provides an in-depth understanding of the ambiguous role of big data and algorithms in modern society’s production of news in order to understand how these intangible technologies operate and exert their invisible power on our society, people and news production. In order for us to attain an understanding of algorithms’ role in modern news production, we establish a theoretical apparatus designed to articulate the impact of intangible technologies on contemporary news production.
Utilizing a socio-materialistic perspective in combination with fundamental ideas stemming from Bruno Latour’s research on the involvement of non-human actors enables us to understand the intermediary role of technology, and information technology (IT) specifically, in modern society. Modern ITs possess inherent affordances that enable actors’ transcendence of time and space, thereby redefining previously longstanding societal elements. The inherent affordances unlock new possibilities at the same time they frame – and inherently constrain – possible social actions. ITs transcend the role as a tool through its inherent affordances that influence ideas and actions and materialize as a digital infrastructure (Zuboff, 2001 and Gulbrandsen, 2013).
To further challenge our understanding we concretize our ontological focus by replacing IT with big data and algorithms and proceed from a macro-level to a meso-level. Big data and algorithms produce algorithmic knowledge that is based on undisclosed assessments, which result in a critical perspective of algorithms’ self-appointed technological neutrality. At this meso-level we scrutinize the technology’s influence on the creation of information in hidden collaborations with users that, consequently, provide users with a non-challenged perspective of reality.
This approach to big data and algorithms’ influence on information enables us to further explore their influence on news production. To further concretize our ontological focus and move to a micro-level we replace society with news production and its relevant actors.
Social media platforms have generated radical changes in the production and distribution of news and are seen as a catalyst for the fusion of the traditional roles – journalist (producer) and user (consumer). Algorithms are additionally identified to possess a distinct role in news production and are trusted by journalists to comply by traditional journalistic criteria.
Social media platforms are based on algorithms to provide users with ’relevant’ information, but these assessment processes are hidden and result in unknowledgeable algorithmic information ecosystems that don’t provide users with a representative information overview. Rather, they select information customized to unique users.
As such, algorithms are not defined as a neutral source of information, but instead as a black boxed technology that exercise its subjective power in the selection of information through interdependent relations with users. Algorithms aggregate users digital activity and create algorithmic identities that affect the information environment from a journalistic and user perspective. The reduction to digital activity produces basis for a disruption of news production’s values, where clickocracy erodes democratic principles.
Our theoretical understanding of algorithms in modern news production is applied in an investigation of a news app that represents a manifestation of the algorithmic technology, which enables a further research of the role of user and journalist.

EducationsMSc in Business Administration and Organizational Communication, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2016
Number of pages122