What are your research topics?
I investigate the implications of media technologies and the commodified communication environment to shared beliefs, religions, worldviews and ideologies.
The digital algorithmic communication environment is filled with a range of reversed tools that use us while we use them. Reversed tools collect data from users and direct their activities in ways that generate unintended or undesired consequences in society.
I am interested in the complex consequences of people’s interaction increasingly taking place through these various platforms and systems. I try to find ways to understand their implications to societies, interaction and shared worldviews.
Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?
Many Finns still remember the time when the Finnish public broadcaster Yleisradio broadcasted television news on both of its channels at the same time every evening. And there were no other tv channels available! Today, almost everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, offering a spectrum of limitless content for browsing at any time of the day.
At least in principle, all smartphone owners can also produce different types of messages in various services. Great majority of the content circulates on commercial social media platforms, whose primary goal is to keep people clicking for as long as possible to generate data and money.
To draw and keep users’ attention, the algorithms of the platforms have been designed to prefer content related to conflict-sensitive topics that evoke strong emotions and that may involve, for example, identity, politics or religion. Content related to such issues makes both opponents and proponents worked up and responsive.
With content travelling between platforms and across borders in countless versions, it is almost impossible for media users to distinguish between the genre of different pieces of content, their original makers and the reason for their creation. I call this content confusion: A story that looks like a piece of news can be an advert, deliberate misdirection for fun, in other words, trolling, mistakenly distributed false information, or sometimes even information operation or propaganda. Or it might simply be a piece of news!
While plurality has increased and people’s opportunities for participation have expanded, a great deal of noise and cacophony have come about at the same time. In the middle of this racket it is increasingly difficult for anyone to feel heard. The instability of knowledge and noise that evokes emotions inevitably affect people’s mutual trust and perceptions of the world, the future and other people.
However, these platforms are key tools for people to form notions about, for example, their sense of beloning or ideas about exclusion. Even perceptions on what is true or desirable depends on the kind of interaction the communication environment makes possible.
What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?
The speed in which various AI solutions is breaking into the everyday life of regular media users is dramatic. Unfortunately, the content confusion is not likely to be reduced with this development, quite the contrary. The situation has its’ horrifying side, even if it is fascinating to examine, for example, the ‘perceptions’ of ‘intelligent’ machines and, for instance, the imagery they produce of different religious traditions.
Katja Valaskivi is the Professor of Religious Studies and Media Research at the Faculty of Theology.