Opinion: Traditional media is not all we should be looking at

It’s not often I agree with a Conservative MP, it’s even less often that I hear them say something that actually strikes me as truly insightful.

During the parliamentary debate on the BSkyB bid there was one such moment. At 6.25pm Dr Phillip Lee stood up and spoke to a now mostly empty chamber. This was a shame, because what he had to say was, in my view, extremely relevant and highly important. (Hansard)

He spoke on the fact that a lot, if not the vast majority, of the news people are getting today comes from not the mainstream media, the newspapers, magazines and TV, but from the “new media”, the social networks, sites like LibDem Voice and search engines.

I certainly get most of my news online and if I want more detail on an issue than my usual sites provide I turn to a search engine.

Companies like Yahoo!, Microsoft/Bing, and Google are the new arbiters of our news. They have it within their power to shape what we see, to shape our views on a subject, indeed to drive a specific agenda and we might never even notice it’s happening.

It could be deliberate, calculated, or it could simply be accidental. If the top search results all returned sites with a conservative outlook then what you read may well influence your views, or it might be liberal, or maybe just those sites that are favourable to the current agenda.

The algorithms the search engines use to generate their results are commercially secret and how would we know that they haven’t been tweaked so that news sites favourable to the engine’s owner don’t get weighted higher than those unfavourable? How often when searching does on go past the first page of results?

A recent example, something that might have been missed by many in the UK, is a court case Google lost in Belgium. A number of Belgian papers decided they didn’t like Google linking to their websites without permission or paying compensation and sued under copyright legislation. Then the law of unintended consequences kicked in. The papers didn’t want Google showing article extracts or photos as links, but Google interpreted links in its fullest sense and removed all the sites from its search results entirely, since the sites don’t appear they can’t be linked to, and hence Google doesn’t have to pay the fines. The papers of course suddenly aren’t happy that they got what they wanted. (Yes, the irony of that link was deliberate.)

Given my own views on copyright, I can’t help but laugh at those papers getting their comeuppance. Yet this is exactly the same problem we are now in crisis over, the close relationship between those needing exposure and those providing it. As far as Google users are concerned, those Belgian newspapers no longer exist. What if instead of newspapers, it was a political party?

With over 90% of the searches from the UK going through Google, that’s a lot of power concentrated in one place. We don’t want to end up in a situation where we finally remove the need/ability of politicians to suck up to the likes of News International to make sure they get favourable exposure only to shift this to companies like Google. Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and all the others.

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5 Comments

  • This is a very important point, thanks for publicising it more widely. I don’t see what can be done though, the flow of information is so important to a democracy the whole thing could be broken by doing the wrong thing. And equally broken through inaction.

  • Martin Gill 17th Jul '11 - 3:33pm

    @Chris Squire,

    While I can certainly accept your point of view, I take a similar perspective to this as google does. The inclusion of the odd paragraph falls squarely under fair-use provision in US copyright law, and I believe is a concept we should introduce in UK and EU law as well.

    The point though is not about copyright, it’s about the effect of media monopolies. Ultimately winning their case caused those newspapers much more harm I suspect than letting Google be. This echoes rather strikingly with a lot of what has been said by politicians about being afraid to challenge News International.

    @M

    Yes, I too cannot see an obvious solution. I suspect the only real way to deal with this is to raise awareness of the issue generally so as to cultivate a level of scepticism by users in the results provided. Technologically perhaps encourage the use of search aggregators. Perhaps the government should create it’s own, or for a more independent solution have OfCom provide it.

  • No no no no! Lee is my local MP and when he started talking about Google I just wanted to cry. Have Google paid any coppers? Have they bugged any phones? Do they have sleepers in the Met? Do our leading politicians throw birthday parties for Google? Do they strike fear into journalists? Do they make threats and pay hush money to celebrities? Whilst some of what Lee said was factual, the thrust of it was a red herring and at a time when the focus is and should rightly be on the print media – why start talking about news aggregators? It would only make sense to tie up the chamber with such observations if one wanted to take attention away from the problem at hand.

  • The clue Alistair was in the title: “not all”.

    We should most definitely focus on the current media. And i don’t really care about google’s role as a news aggregator.

    The issue here is that google has as much power, if not more, to shape opinion and views through what results it returns in it’s search results as any of the mainstream papers.

    While google generally lives us to it’s motto of “do no evil” and certainly has done nothing anywhere near as bad as the papers appear to have done, that doesn’t mean it won’t, or can’t be pressured into doing such things.

    What if google decided it didn’t like libdem voice any more and nothing on this site was ever returned in search results anymore. The liberal voice would be diminished in what people get to read on an article and could shift public opinon to non-liberal views.

    That’s what we need to guard against. We need think about how we can protect ourselves from google/facebook/bing etc going the same way as the papers have done.

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