MeDi Symposium
“Bridging the Gender Gap:
Challenges and Future of Media in a Digital Information Society” Report

Hiroki Kato (B’AI Research Assistant, Doctoral Student, Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies,
the University of Tokyo)

Date: Saturday, December 12, 2020
Location: YouTube live stream (YouTube channels: Medi, Choose Life Project)
Organized by: B’AI Global Forum, Institute for AI and Beyond at the University of Tokyo
/ MeDi (group working to examine media expression and diversity fundamentally)

On Saturday, December 12, 2020, MeDi (group working to examine media expression and diversity fundamentally) held an online symposium via YouTube entitled “Bridging the Gender Gap: Challenges and Future of Media in a Digital Information Society”. MeDi has been examining and disseminating information on various issues of expression in the media as an independent research group; however, from November 2020, it will be positioned within the B’AI Global Forum. This symposium will be a major re-launch event. In consideration of the transmission of COVID-19, the event was held in the form of a live YouTube stream, with the cooperation of the Choose Life Project (CLP).

This symposium was divided into two parts: In Part I, “What Will Change if there are More Women? Major Media Have Started to Address Gender Issues,” the panelists, including journalists and reporters from major media outlets, examined the structural changes in the media industry in recent years, the factors behind them, and the impact they have had. Part II, “Are Online Spaces Safe for Women?,” brought together writers, lawyers, and researchers of science, technology, and society to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the Internet, the challenges of regulating expression and the use of information technology, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI). Below, some of the issues in each section have been selected and the discussion has been summarized.

In the first section, it was noted that in recent years major media outlets have launched a number of large-scale projects to address gender issues (NHK’s Beyond Gender, Asahi Shimbun’s Think Gender, etc.), and many perspectives were exchanged on the structural changes in the mass media that may underpin these initiatives. These structural changes signify that the number of working women has increased in decision-making positions. For example, at the Asahi Shimbun, where the speaker Sawa Okabayashi is employed, the previously mentioned Think Gender project has led to the establishment of a “gender desk” in each editorial department and a virtuous circle that promotes structural change in the mass media is beginning to emerge.

This increase in the number of women in mass media (especially at the decision-making level) is not only a transformation in the composition of the workforce but is likely to produce two major alterations. First, the content of the news reported in the mass media will be transformed. Thus far, the major media positions that determine “what to report in the news” have been mostly occupied by men. However, as the number of women in decision-making positions increase (increasing in diversity), it is likely that issues related to women and children that have not been recognized as important in the past will now be reported. Second, the working environment in the mass media will be transformed. Currently, long working hours are the norm throughout the industry and opportunities for promotion have been closed to female reporters who are unable to work in this manner due to maternity leave. However, as the number of women in the workplace increases, this will create an environment that is simpler for women to work in and that allows people to select work styles to suit more diverse lifestyles. It is important to note that these transformations do not only benefit women. For example, creating a workplace where women who go on maternity leave can work comfortably means that male reporters will also be able to choose from a variety of work styles to suit their needs. Tae Fujita, Director of TBS’s human resources and labor affairs department, stated that it is important to promote work style reform as a factor that benefits both men and women. At the end of Part I, it was confirmed that there must be a continued discussion of the challenges of mass media as challenges of society because these structural changes in mass media are likely to lead to more balanced and quality news reporting, which ultimately benefits society in its entirety.

In Part II, the main theme was the problem of online expression and its countermeasures. First, the results of several surveys confirmed that many young women have experienced online harassment and that the content of online harassment is often ridicule regarding their appearance. Hioka, who currently works as a writer, reported that she has repeatedly experienced online harassment and that it has made it challenging for her to advocate on social networking sites (SNS). As a result, it is conceivable that there is a structure in which attacks are concentrated on specific groups of people on SNS, making it difficult for those who are easily attacked to raise their voices and making their opinions invisible. Therefore, they become marginalized. It is particularly challenging to address online harassment at present because the range of expression that can be policed by law is quite restricted and there is a broad range of “ambiguous areas” that are sufficiently hurtful to the other party but are not legally problematic.

To address this challenge, a possible solution could involve discussion on a review of the current law. However, regulating the content of expression by law is a rather difficult challenge that involves many factors, which may not result in a rapid and direct resolution. Given these points, attorney Genichi Yamaguchi reported that the responsibility and common sense of providers, operators, and platforms who provide “venues” for the transmission of content should be questioned more in the future. As Hioka emphasized, while SNS has many problems, it also has great potential; therefore, it is necessary for society as a whole to create a framework for enveloping a better information environment, including platforms, to maximize the benefits of SNS.

Recently, the use of information technology, such as AI, is beginning to be considered to address online harassment. For example, universities outside Japan are developing systems that can separate misogynistic comments based on the context in which the comments were posted and this is an initiative that has the potential to solve challenges in the previously mentioned ambiguous area. Simultaneously, however, there is a great deal of opposition and concern regarding these mechanical interventions, with some of the perspectives that these methods are not transparent and that the use of AI could exacerbate the situation. Arisa Ema, a specially appointed lecturer at the University of Tokyo who specializes in the theory of science, technology, and society, noted that when discussing such issues, it is important to understand that AI is only a tool, and the discussion should be focused on the people who address it rather than AI itself. In particular, she indicated that in doing so, it is important to have a balanced and diverse group of members to discuss the design philosophy of the AI designers and the nature of the algorithms and data that are used. For example, it has often been noted that allowing AI to learn current data “as-is” can lead to the reproduction of existing discriminatory structures; however, these problems can be avoided by adopting a framework, such as of that described above. It will be necessary to constantly return to the vision of “what kind of society we want to have” and calmly discuss this without excessively raising or overly fearing the new technology of AI.

In this symposium, active discussions were held on the issues of gender in mass media and expression in SNS. What was repeatedly confirmed was the importance of questioning the structures and frameworks that cause challenges to occur. At present, with the changes in the media environment, there are a series of movements to reexamine the mechanisms and structures of existing and emerging media fundamentally and it is necessary to ensure that these movements continue for society as a whole to promote the creation of frameworks for improved spaces for discourse.