Algorithms and Big Data: New Frontiers for Media Education

Algorithms and big data have become the new frontier of media education. Consumers of online information require specific skills and knowledge to navigate the media environment.

This article was originally issued in the November edition of the The Media and Learning Newsletter, published by the Media & Learning Association, Belgium (

Algorithms and big data have become the new frontier of media education. Consumers of online information require specific skills and knowledge to navigate the media environment. Being media literate means having the ability to critically understand the nature, techniques and impacts of media messages to Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy.

Information and communication technologies have wide-ranging effects on the way we communicate and obtain information. Access to information is becoming more and more dependent on digital media and informatics. Unlike traditional mass media, new interactive media (such as smartphones and interactive television) can provide information that is specifically customised for a user based on his or her online profile. As a result a growing proportion of media content is consumed in small decontextualized chunks of information.

The process of filtering information to the public by the media is undergoing a profound upheaval. The means to seek information and knowledge are changing rapidly while human gatekeepers (journalists, publishers) are replaced by “computer agents” and “intelligent devices” whose precise mode of operation is not known to us. Algorithms are black boxes. For example, we don’t know the logic behind the PageRank algorithm of the Google’s search engine nor that of Facebook’s news feed. Yet Facebook’s secret and constantly shifting formula is shaping the social lives and reading habits of one-fifth of the world’s adult population. The Internet is no longer the open window on the World we used to think it was. Automatic filtering of information (often in a covert way) narrows the knowledge universe. Space shrinks.

Eli Pariser proposed the concept of a “filter bubble” – seekers of information are presented with only a limited range of search results, specifically targeted to their assumed interests. This leaves them in a state of intellectual isolation and results in the depletion of the diversity of opinions and concerns they are used to sharing with others, a distortion which fosters the Same rather than the Other.

In addition to shrinking of the public space threatening privacy, new digital technologies have the menacing potential to manipulate those individuals who are isolated in their information bubbles. The data collected from media users, the monitoring of their behaviors and the data processing by software agents put democracy at risk. How can members of a community debate issues with one another in the absence of a set of common references? Without an exchange of views, how can citizens escape the suggestions of the data processing systems? And how can a society build a shared vision? These are serious concerns.

As the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has pointed out, a apparatus has in some way “the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions or discourses of living beings”. From the prehistoric hand axe to the bots of today, tools and technical equipment have shaped our culture – the ideas, customs, and social behavior of humanity.

To meet the new challenges posed by software agents and artificial intelligence driven devices in our digital society and help students to navigate through an increasingly complex media landscape, it is now crucial to close the gap between applied research in information and communication science and the educational world. It is well worth taking time to consider the integration of basic knowledge of informatics into the field of media education.

> Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Penguin Press, New York, May 2011.
> Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus? and Other Essays, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2009.

Cet article concerne le domaine Médias, images et technologies de l’information et de la communication (MITIC) – Education aux médias et à l’information (EMI) – Media and Information Literacy (MIL)

Auteur : Jean-Claude Domenjoz

Expert de communication visuelle et d’éducation aux médias (Médias, images et technologies de l’information et de la communication – MITIC)