In Google we trust

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

“Google is a more trusted source than traditional media”

It is well known that newspapers have long since lost the monopoly on the news and its distribution. The novelty this week is that, according to a study conducted by Edelman public relations agency based on 27,000 respondents, search engines have overtaken traditional media in terms of reliability as a «general news and information» source. This trend is more marked among the Millennials.

via Quartz

Websites like Google are considered a more trusted source than the selected newspapers in their research. «Google is now a more trusted source of news than the website it aggregates,» summarizes John McDuling of Quartz. It is quite a paradox, if it is considered that the Mountain View website does not produce real news (as opposed to say Yahoo), instead simply indexing the production of others, and that in some countries – like Spain – it was forced to close GoogleNews after being charged with having “stolen” content from newspapers.

«The search engine serves, for better or worse, as the simplest and quickest way to find most things online, including news,» McDuling explains. Is it a good or a bad thing? «There are two ways to interpret it,» according to Nathaniel Mott of Pando. The optimistic version suggests welcoming positively the fact that readers are increasingly in touch with a greater variety of sources than before. The pessimistic version warns of the risks of a scenario in which search engines are likely to have in their hands an almost monopolistic control of online information – especially if issues such as the right to be forgotten are considered. «Google’s algorithmic appeal to consumers’ existing biases creates an echo chamber from which it becomes increasingly difficult to escape,» Mott indicates. «Perhaps that’s why people trust the company more than traditional media organizations – Google never challenges their views,» nor their conclusions about the world, Mott concludes, keeping them well anchored to their “filter bubbles.”

At least, McDulling points out, traditional media continues to be considered more reliable than social networks, although these are becoming more important than search engines in terms of traffic.

Facebook declares war on hoaxes

This week, Facebook has introduced a new tool that allows users to report what they consider to be fake news. Once reported, hoaxes will appear less frequently in the users’ news feed, limiting their spread through a warning message (like this) that will appear at the top of the posts. «This is an update to the News Feed ranking algorithm. There are no human reviewers or editors involved» explained a Facebook product manager. The content under scrutiny content will not be removed by someone appointed to check, but will simply be disadvantaged by the algorithm itself in terms of indexing, without any type of ‘editorial’ intervention.

«Facebook wants to provide a remedy, but that, too, presents issues,» explains John McDermott of Digiday. The whole process seems to be slightly opaque. In the absence of human control, the company appoints its users in the cleansing of hoaxes from the platform, without indicating – for example – how many times an article needs to be reported as ‘false’ to be notified as such and «without actually taking on the responsibility of figuring out what’s true,» answers Adrienne LaFrance, who started a column called Antiviral at Gawker, to Caroline O’Donovan of NiemanLab. What are the risks? Certainly – as recalled by Dartmouth assistant professor of government Brendan Nyhan – “collective intelligence” may appear a preferable judge compared to the sole judgment of a human moderator, who requires «a lot of background knowledge to determine what’s true and what’s false.» What would happen – Nyhan wonders – if people began to report as ‘false’ all the news they do not like?

The issue cannot but have an impact on current journalistic production, if the facts that the social network has become the first carrier for traffic for online newspapers, one of the most consulted news sources by readers and the most visited website in the world (Alexa) are considered. It is a choice that might turn out to have major publishing consequences, according to Carmel DeAmicis of GigaOM, «because Facebook, like Medium, is playing with the gray area between platform and publisher.»

Medium’s «coup»

Medium is a service (previously mentioned here) that allows anyone to publish articles or create collections of articles of others, with a common layout and a simple structure. Unlike a hosting service for blogs, it has a kind of newsroom that decides, through an “editorial” process, which content to promote or to commission articles to chosen authors, as if it were an online magazine (here a contribution via Poynter about how Medium and other platishers can be useful, or not, for writers).

This week, the company created by Ev Williams «scored a coup,» according to Erik Wemple of the Washington Post. The White House published the annual State of the Union address on Medium, before it was delivered by President Obama. «We’re trying to find audiences where they are,» explained Eric Shultz, a spokesman for the White House. Nearly 20 million visitors per month – and $25 million collected in 2014 – could justify this statement.

Lydia Lauderson of the Harvard Business Review is more pessimistic. According to her, Medium’s hybrid nature, halfway between the platform and publisher, can represent a disadvantage in the long run in terms of credibility with readers. For example, it is not odd that we can find advertising on “platforms” such as Google or Facebook, states the author, whereas an advertorial such as that of Scientology in The Atlantic – which is a classic “publisher” – aroused anger and protests in recent months (previously mentioned here). The two plans seem unlikely to overlap. «It is tempting to think you can do both – and maybe a rare few will succeed,» continues Lauderson, but the question is: «Do you want to change the world by making the tool everyone uses — or would you prefer to change the world by being the voice that everyone trusts?»