More worrisome than fast lanes and slow lanes

What worries me more than fast lanes and slower lanes on the internet:

[T]he [Google/Facebook] duopoly’s dominance threatens the marketplace of ideas. Beyond advertising, Google and Facebook control how millions of people find their news. Americans are far likelier, collectively, to encounter articles via search engines and social media than on a news site’s home page.

Google is used for nearly 90% of online searches in the U.S. A Pew survey this summer found that the four most popular social-media sites for getting news are Facebook, YouTube (owned by Google), Twitter (which has a Google partnership), and Instagram (owned by Facebook). No more than 5% of Americans use another social-media platform to get news.

If executives at a Silicon Valley monopoly [e.g., Google] believe that censoring certain content will push the world in a positive direction, market pressures cannot sufficiently restrain them.

Journalists also argue that tech companies are pushing media toward the lowest common denominator. Social media rewards clickbait—sensational headlines that confirm readers’ biases. Google and Facebook’s advertising duopoly bleeds traditional publishers of the revenue needed to produce high-quality news. At the same time, Google’s search engine is biased against subscription content, depleting another source of funding.

The bottom line is that Google’s and Facebook’s advertising policies and algorithms make it less profitable to produce high-quality journalism from any perspective. Their duopoly also gives tech executives the power to defund and block content they personally object to without taking a major hit to the bottom line.

(Mark Epstein, Wall Street Journal) Unlike fast lanes and slow lanes, this threat is not hypothetical. It is making us stupider already:

In a November speech, Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, argued that “edge providers” like social-media websites and search engines “routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like.” Mr. Pai cited YouTube’s decision to place age restrictions on and pull ads from videos by conservative commentator Dennis Prager’s Prager University, including a video by Alan Dershowitz on Israel’s founding.

He also pointed to Twitter’s suspension of a pro-life campaign ad from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, an action that would have been illegal if done by a TV or radio station. Twitter has refused sponsored tweets from immigration opponents, saying its hate-speech policy is triggered by messages such as “the fiscal cost created by illegal immigrants of $746.3b compares to total a cost of deportation of $124.1b.”

When virtually all online advertising goes through two companies …, they have the power to harm websites arbitrarily. One political blog that posted an article trying to distinguish the “alt-right” from white nationalism received a warning email from Google’s AdSense team. An editor took the article down, explaining to readers that the blog “needs revenue from the Google ad platform in order to survive.” You needn’t agree with the editorial decision to publish the article to be troubled by Google’s vetoing it.

On top of all that, Google and Facebook are entirely opaque about how they decide what to put under your nose when you do a Google search or go to wherever it is that people go on Facebook to (eeewwww!) get world news. All we know is that paid advertising has something to do with it. Beyond that, Google keeps search algorithms secret partly for the legitimate purpose of keeping content providers from gaming the system.

Need I note that this article is unlikely to appear at the top of your Google search or on Facebook if, God help you, Facebook is where you go for actual news about the world?

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2 thoughts on “More worrisome than fast lanes and slow lanes

  1. But isn’t that 90% or 95% only the percentage of people “who use social media” to get their news? I see an *assertion* that far more people get their news from Internet searches and from “social media” than get it from the news organization’s Web site., but if any evidence for that claim is presented it’s behind the WSJ’s paywall.

    1. I don’t think there’s more data behind the assertion. It’s mostly “Google and Facebook are (a big?) part of what’s hurting traditional professional journalism.”

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