Google Down-Ranks Real News

Photo by enriscapes

As alluded to in yesterday’s post, the 2016 shock to what we might politely call political orthodoxy provided a boost to mainstream news subscriptions. “The [New York Times] added 276,000 net digital-only subscriptions in the final three months of 2016, the best showing since it implemented its paywall in 2011. In the weeks immediately following Mr. Trump’s election in November, subscriptions increased tenfold compared with the previous year,” wrote Shannon Bond for Financial Times in February.  Similar spikes occurred at The Washington Post and other traditional news sources. So, if nothing else, the bizarre theater of obfuscation and Twitter rants coming out of the new administration seemed at least to rekindle millions of Americans’ desire for credible reportage.

But get this…

Gerry Smith for Bloomberg reports that when The Wall Street Journal blocked Google users from reading its articles for free, its subscription business “soared” only to see this gain countered by a 44% drop in traffic from Google search.  It turns out, according to Smith, that Google’s algorithm prioritizes free content over paid content.  Assuming this is true, there’s a whole lot wrong with it, beginning with the fact that this belies Google’s boastful raison d’etre to “organize the world’s information” and deliver search results based on quality and relevance.

If the algorithm looks for free content first, this suggests that fake news and other junk content will be consistently prioritized over the WSJ, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and so on. Not only does Google’s policy in this case stifle these organizations’ flexibility to choose their own strategies for financial survival, but for the general public, it exacerbates the already toxic brew of bad information that is, at this point, literally threatening democracy itself.  And for what?

Money of course.  Google makes money by serving ads to content that users can more readily access without going through paywalls.  Consequently, ConspiracyIdiots.com makes it into the top results instead of, y’know, news—at least according to what Bloomberg is reporting. “The Journal’s experience could have implications across the news industry, where publishers are relying more on convincing readers to pay for their articles because tech giants like Google and Facebook are vacuuming up the lion’s share of online advertising,” writes Smith.

I’ve gone so far as to assert that we’ve actually lost the “information revolution.” The promise of a more enlightened society through digital technology has hardly been fulfilled, but we do have some very funny memes to stick on the fridge of history.  Given the extent to which the current narrative has been hijacked by a strange confluence of bored trolls and professional data manipulators, a sane person can be forgiven for deciding that it’s about time to unplug.  A recent report by the Data & Society Research Institute on the influence of—I guess we can call it “troll culture”—on even the mainstream media says the following:

“Mass media has greatly profited off the appeal of conspiracy theories despite their potential for harm. Network news channels feature ‘documentaries’ investigating theories without fully refuting them. In 2011, when Donald Trump began promoting the “Birther” conspiracy theory, claiming President Obama was born outside of the United States, mainstream news outlets like CNN and Fox News covered these claims extensively. Out of this environment, an entire industry of conspiracy and fringe theory has emerged.”

The report delves into the intricate network of internet subcultures described as “an amalgam of conspiracy theorists, techno-libertarians, white nationalists, Men’s Rights advocates, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration activists, and bored young people,” who are directly influencing the narrative that many citizens around the world think of as the truth.  And this is bad enough.  “Google says its ‘first click free’ policy is good for both consumers and publishers. People want to get the news quickly and don’t want to immediately encounter a paywall,” writes Smith.

Sound familiar?  What’s good for Google is invariably “good for consumers.” And consumers invariably buy the pitch for a while.  Free?  Yeah, free sounds good.  Until it turns out that free actually a cost. Sometimes a very dire cost—like millions of voters who would sooner believe in alien abduction than climate science. And the point of the above quote about television news creating entertainment out of nonsense is that sensationalism will be the only thing left, if business models no longer support investigation, travel, research, fact checking, and other expensive human labor required to deliver quality journalism.  Add to all this that Google search will apparently down-rank legitimate news because it isn’t free?  Damn.

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