Posts tagged ‘media bias’


The big difference with the internet of the ’90s: it served the many, not the few

11.09.2016


Above: Facebook kept deleting Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph each time it was posted, even when Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten did so, preventing its editor-in-chief from responding.

There’s a significant difference between the internet of the 1990s and that of today. As Facebook comes under fire for deleting the “napalm girl” photograph from the Vietnam War shared by Norwegian writer Tom Egeland, then by prime minister Erna Solberg and Aftenposten newspaper, it has highlighted to me how the big Silicon Valley players have become exclusionary. In this latest case, it is about how one firm determines what is acceptable and unacceptable without regard to cultural significance or free speech; it even punished people who dared criticize it, and has failed to apologize. Earlier this year, in one of my numerous battles with Facebook, I noted how a major German company falsely claimed videos that did not belong to them, yet there was no penalty. An individual or a small firm would not have been so lucky: when we file copyright claims, we do so ‘under penalty of perjury’ on the form.
   Google, never far from my critical eye, is the same. I’ve watched Google News, for instance, become exclusionary, too, or, rather, a service that prefers big players rather than the independents. When deciding to send traffic for a particular news item, Google News now ranks big media outlets more highly, and to heck with journalistic quality or any regard on who broke the story first. It’s damaging to the independent voice, as Google concentrates power in favour of larger firms today, and it’s rather disturbing when you consider the implications.
   Mainstream media can be homogeneous, and, in some cases, damaging, when bias and prejudice get in to the system. When it comes to politics, this can be detrimental to democracy itself. And why should a search engine prefer a larger name anyway? Many newsrooms have been stripped of resources, ever more reliant on press releases. Many now engage in click-bait. Some have agenda driven by big business and their technocratic view of the world, especially those that have their corporate headquarters outside the country in which they operate. Those who desire to wake people up from their slumber get short shrift. Google is aiding this world, because since it became publicly listed, it has had to adopt its trappings, and one might argue that it is in direct conflict with its ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra (one which never held much sway with me).
   This is the world which Google and Facebook, and no doubt others, wish to serve up to users. They may well argue that they’re only delivering what people want: if a lot of people get their news from the Daily Mail or The Huffington Post, then that’s what they’ll show in their results. There’s little freshness online as a result, which is why people aren’t as inclined to share in 2016 as they were in 2010.
   Yet it was not always this way. The hope in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that Google et al would be tools in distributing power equally among all netizens. Started an independent online publication? If the quality is there, if you’re the first to break a story, then Google News will lavish attention upon you. If you have specialized news outside what mainstream media deliver, then you’ll pop up regularly in the search results’ pages. The blogosphere rose because of this, with people seeking opinions and research outside of what the mainstream could deliver. The reason people blog less isn’t just because of social networks making one-sentence opinions de rigueur; it is because people have found it harder to reach new audience members, and their own tribe is the next best thing.
   It makes the ’net a far less interesting place to be. Without fresh, new views, we run the risk of groupthink, or we become particularly influenced by the biases of certain media outlets. We don’t really want to surf casually as we once did because we don’t learn anything new: it’s harder to find novel things that pique our interests.
   There are potential solutions, of course. I tend not to Google, but use Duck Duck Go, so at least I don’t get a filter bubble when I search for particular subjects. However, Duck Duck Go does not have a comprehensive news search, and Google’s index size remains unbeatable.
   What we really need next is something that brings back that sense of equality online. I believe that if you put in the hours into good content and design, you should excel and get your site ranked above the same old sources. Google claims that it does that when it tweaks its algorithms but I’m not seeing this. Facebook merely builds on what people have found—so if you can’t find it, it won’t wind up being shared. Twitter, at least, still has some interesting items, but if you don’t catch it in your feed at a given time, then too bad. It’s not geared to search.
   Duck Duck Go is a start, at least when it comes to general searches. It becomes easier to find views that you might not agree with—and that’s a good thing when it comes to understanding others. Google’s approach lulls you into a sense of security, that your views are sacrosanct—and all that does is give you the notion that the other half is wrong.
   So what of news? Duck Duck Go could well be a starting-point for that, too, ranking news based on who breaks an item first and the quality of the site, rather than how much money is behind it. Or perhaps this is the space for another entrepreneur. Ironically, it might even come out of China; though right now it’s equally likely to emerge from India. What it then needs is a bit of virality for it to be adopted, spread by the very people it is designed to aid.
   We need something that rewards the independent entrepreneur again, the people who drove so many innovations in the 1990s and 2000s. This isn’t nostalgia kicking in, seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses while happily ignoring all those businesses that failed. I completely acknowledge there were sites that vanished at the time of the dot-com bust, triggered in no small part by 9-11, the anniversary of which we celebrate today.
   Society needs those distinctive voices, those independent entrepreneurs, those people who are willing to put themselves forward and be judged fairly. What they don’t need are reactionary media who want to silence them out of fear that the world will change too much for them to bear; and big Silicon Valley firms all too happy to join in these days.
   It’s high time the most influential websites served the many rather than the few again.

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Posted in business, culture, globalization, interests, internet, media, politics, publishing, technology, USA | 7 Comments »


Vladimir Putin’s end-of-year conference: not as ‘crazy’ as The Independent makes out

26.12.2014

I’m one of the few living in the occident who watched President Putin’s end-of-year press conference (all right, I listened to a good part of it while working). While the live translations coming through were distracting, it was better than not knowing what he was saying. It was a rare thing, to see a president front up to a roomful of journalists, some from western countries who weren’t going to make life easy for him—especially over the Crimea—and give his point of view. The three-hour event, which you can watch on YouTube, showed a world leader prepared to give answers face to face, and it wasn’t even for an election campaign. I don’t agree with everything he said—I have friends there who tell me of the pressures they face over free speech and the right to express a dissenting political viewpoint. While a lot of what he gave were stock politicians’ answers, I’d still give the guy some credit.
   Which makes it all the more amazing that at least one medium turned the thing into a joke. Here’s The Independent’s take on it, entitled, ‘What you missed at Vladimir Putin’s quite crazy press conference’. I’m not saying the report is false, but cherry-picking a few anomalies does not make it a fair summary. I know the ‘I100’ section is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but these days when people might come across reports via Google News, that mightn’t be obvious. You’d have better luck going to a website like this. The Washington Post, meanwhile, did a reasonably good job and its report gels with what I recall.
   It’s a bit of shame about the lack of prominence this item got, not just from the point of view of learning more about world affairs, but reminding us that many political leaders wouldn’t, or couldn’t, front up for a prolonged Question Time in front of international media. I don’t know if President Putin gives regular press conferences, but assuming he does, this lengthy end-of-year appearance is a decent bonus and not unlike a shareholders’ AGM in business. Of course, he is a politician, and you have to treat a lot of what he says as spin, but better to appear to give a perspective than allowing the dialogue to build against you.

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Posted in media, politics, publishing, UK, USA | No Comments »


Google Plus is about to turn three: will media remember the hype?

23.06.2014

As Google Plus nears yet another anniversary—I believe it’s its third next week—it’s interesting to reflect back on the much-hyped launch. Or, more accurately, on the number of people who drank the Google Kool-Aid and believed this would be the biggest thing since Facebook. Have a glance at the cheerleading: a handful of links I could find quickly today included Testically, Techcrunch, Ghacks (though I don’t blame them, since they are run for the Google community) and Readwrite. It had allies like this in the blogging community. Forbes was still championing it as late as December 2013. As I wrote this, Mashable was one that raised the issue of privacy back then, though I’m sure there were others.
   I want to clear up that I am not criticizing a single person here for a lapse of ethics. I’m simply pointing out the buzz: many tech experts pumped up Plus. I know one (there could have been more) who backtracked less than half a year later when it failed to make much of an impact and stated what he really meant.
   I realize that there are some opinion leaders on there who are doing remarkably well. However, generally, fewer people are on it actively compared with Facebook, and fewer threads and conversations take place. Despite Google’s methods of forcing people on it, by linking it to YouTube, where a lot of people comment, it still hasn’t taken off in the public’s imaginations.
   You’re always going to get a biased view from me about Google, but not one borne out of a philosophical reason or some dislike of Californians or Americans (and I have cousins and an aunt who are both). It was borne out of the disconnect between what the firm said and what the firm did: everything from the outright lies over years of the Ads Preferences Manager (a system that has since been replaced) to the blacklisting system (where, it was discovered, only two part-time people were devoted to it, leaving queries unanswered on its forums and sites unfairly and wrongly blacklisted with no resolutions). Yet I was once a Google cheerleader, if you go back far enough on this blog, let down by its actions. This blog itself was once on Blogger.
   I took the stance (which I read from Stowe Boyd) that if the original Google organized the web, and Facebook organized your friends, then that didn’t leave Google Plus an awful lot to do. What I cannot get is, with Google’s endless dismeanours, why people would continue to take its PR department’s hype at its word.
   You might argue that others haven’t been as upset by these faults as I have. That, for the overwhelming majority, they just go to Google for search and it rarely suffers downtime. In fact, it’s very good in delivering what people wanted there. This was Google’s “killer app”, the thing that toppled Altavista, the biggest website in the world.
   But, Google tells us, it owns all these other things, and we now know that it sends all those data to the NSA and is complicit in snooping. We know it got round browser settings in Safari through hacking so it could spy more on the public—until it was busted by the Murdoch Press. Courageous American attorneys-general punished Google by docking it a massive four hours’ pay.
   Surely that would be enough to turn people off? Apparently not.
   No one really seems to mind having this happen, and I am a hypocrite because I use Facebook and know it’s up to the same tricks. I had to go to the Network Advertising Initiative to block Facebook’s new ad cookie from targeting me, fetching my data when I’m off-site. But you don’t see me pump up Facebook very often. I’ll give it kudos when it’s deserved (I thought Timeline was a great interface when new) and flak when it’s not. It’s not a blind admiration, and that’s what I sense of the big G.
   And it’s not the brand. A good brand is one that is transparent and has integrity. It walks its talk. Sure, Google does well in those surveys—so what does that really say? Enron did well in surveys, too. It even won an award for climate change action.
   So why the love from some quarters of the media? Did it take Snowden and PRISM for there to be more than just casual reporting on Google’s faults? And shouldn’t there be more depth than this?
   Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s community. What the big G has done well—and Facebook, for that matter—is bring people together. Here’s a story on a man who is a tech lead on Google Glass, innovating at a university. Folks like this come together because of innovations pushed by these big tech firms. One of my good friends, who is supportive of Google, says the positives outweigh the negatives. So when Google or YouTube goes down—my queries took minutes to resolve over the weekend—most people see that. Ditto with Facebook: even when it was down for some users last week (which, incidentally, didn’t make the news, though the 20-minute global outage on Thursday did—I still maintain there is some limit people are hitting on one or some servers, and Facebook acknowledges it was a software bug, not an attack from China), I was still checking in to see if things were back. I liked my communities and the people I engaged with.
   So when it comes to pointing out a bug with Google—as I had to last year when its robot would not whitelist clean, previously blacklisted sites—that same community bands together, ignoring the pleas of innocent users, and maintaining the high-and-mighty stance that there could not possibly be anything wrong with its systems. Blogger was the same, when “tech support” and the main Blogger contact were complicit, to the point of deleting evidence that proved a fault, and it took the then-product manager’s intervention to be ethical, honest, transparent and proactive. One good guy (who has since moved on to other parts of Google—yet he still helped me out on a remaining bug last year), but one messed-up support system. And I have to wonder if that is symptomatic of the bigger picture at the big G. It’s not all fun with Owen Wilson trying to be an intern—but it sure does well getting itself into films to portray the positive, upbeat, and inspiring side of the business.
   However, it’s the task of media not to be sucked in to any of this, and to provide us an objective view. To report fairly and dispassionately, and to put aside a press junket or a Silicon Valley gathering. There are polite ways of providing criticism, if it’s about maintaining some level of mana within that community and to ensure a steady flow of inside news. I always find—and again I admit I am biased—that I can’t really read anything about Google without my mind going first to some of these deeper problems, so why not offer such a balance when they are directly relevant?
   Google Plus’s anniversary might go largely unnoticed. But it would be interesting if someone in the media noted just how many colleagues hyped it up at the time. Will we see such a report next week?

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Posted in branding, business, culture, internet, marketing, media, USA | 3 Comments »