Google and Facebook, Democracy’s Greatest Challenge? #49 #cong16

By Darragh Rea.

In a world of information how do we find the truths to inform our choices? The rise of Google and Facebook has brought people together on a scale previously un-thought of, but is this mass connection distorting the way we think, behave and vote? With an ever rising amount of news and content consumed across their channels, they have had an enormous effect on the political system, acting as gatekeepers to information which directly impacts voting behaviour. An impact which has been widely questioned in the aftermath of Trumps win - see a recent BBC article here. 

Over the past number of years the trust we place in information sources has changed dramatically, resulting in an almost complete inversion of influence. This inversion has led to a rising distrust for those in Authority and an increase in anti-establishment sentiment, against this backdrop we’ve experienced significant political shocks which not so long ago would have been unthinkable. Would the Arab Spring, Obama, Trump, Marriage Equality, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn have emerged without these seismic changes in information flow? So what is fuelling these changes and what does it mean for our much cherished political system?

News sources have changed irrevocably 

A recent Reuters study supported by Edelman explored the changing face of news consumption and established some interesting shifts.

1. Online sources dominate: All three younger age groups in the study (18-24 yr. olds, 25-34 yr. olds and 35-44 yr. olds) say that online including social is their main source of news

2. The rise of social as a news source: Just over half (51%) of those surveyed claimed they use social as a source of news each week, tellingly this rises to 64% for 25 – 34 yr. olds and 73% for 18 – 24 yr. olds.  In Ireland 15% of those surveyed say it is their main source of news, up 3 points since 2015

3. Facebook leads social: Unsurprisingly Facebook is the dominant channel in almost every market with 71% using it generally and 45% saying they use it for news

4. Search still a starting point: In Ireland 34% say they use search as an access point for new

5. Algorithms rule: More of those surveyed indicated they were happy for news to be selected for them by algorithms which take account of what you’ve read before than by the judgment of editors or journalists

The Inversion of Influence 

For the past 16 years Edelman has been studying trust as part of its annual Trust Barometer and we’ve seen a steady shift in influence away from  those  in traditional  leadership positions.  Influence starts and is shared amongst the general population, with less reliance on  those in authority to shape our world view. In-fact in 2016 trust in “A Person like yourself” rose 6% to 63% putting them at the same level of experts and clearly ahead of CEO’s (49%), Board of Directors (44%) and Government (35%). 


The personal web

As we rely on search and social, increasingly our media experiences are becoming more unique. Where we go and what we see is determined by algorithms which are informed by our past behaviour and that of our connections. As we visit and engage with more information which supports our own views, these algorithms are more likely to serve us only this type of information and less likely to serve up information which doesn’t support our views, a point compounded by our Trust data which shows we’re also more likely to trust this information. There is a question of quality however, where traditional media provided a professional filter around individuals and organisations dissemination of information this is not always the case from other sources. Note the current controversy around Facebook and the US elections and Facebook’s position that is is neither a news company or the arbiter of what constitutes ‘fake’ and ‘real’ news.  

The role of traditional media brands

Reuters research also shows that traditional media brands still dominate as the originators of news, except in this new model of distributed news, search and social provide the key access points. The report highlights that in typically affluent Western European and Scandinavian countries with a mix of strong, well-funded public service broadcasters and commercial players, there is higher trust in news, whereas trust is lower in the United States (33%) as well as in Southern European countries. Interesting results when you consider that in the US election the media for the large part supported Hillary whilst in the U.K. where they are more trusted, there was significant support for Brexit.

The Facts don’t lie, Right?

So we’ve established that we’re more trusting of news and information from search and social sources, which in turn we know serves this news and information to us based on what they know we already like to see – but what does it matter anyway when the information is factual? 

Knowing the impact algorithms based on past behaviour have on future traffic, news authors compete on a story by story basis to achieve more engagement than their rivals. Unfortunately a byproduct of this is click bait news stories which are often sensationalised to reach the mass population in much the same way the traditional tabloid front page has worked in the past. This in turn leads to a rise in news stories being accessed online which polarise the population and can support more extreme views.

Unfortunately, as several recent political earthquakes have shown, often this happens at the expense of the truth. Let’s take Brexit for starters; the votes had barely been counted when Farage and leading Leave leaders had backtracked on one of their key promises to divert £350m of EU funding to the NHS, similarly post the vote they now indicated that no one had ever claimed there would be no immigration and that in fact there would be no change to the status of EU immigrants living in Britain.  Lastly after claiming that Article 50 would be invoked straight away, they changed their mind and called for a period of reflection. All three of the original points had proven significant in convincing voters of the merit in leaving the EU and had been widely shared and accepted as trusted facts by the supporters of Brexit only to find out post-vote that they were entirely the opposite. 

More recently we’ve had the success of Donald Trump in what was a bitterly contested election race, which was full of lies about the Clinton family, including them potentially committing murder, Hillary's email shame and even links to terrorists. It has also been widely reported about the significant number of mistruths spoken by the President-elect over the course of the campaign with the Huffington Post keeping this tally during the debates. The challenge is that his supporters were fed these lies as truths and due to the personal web they most likely saw very little contradictory information which they trusted as much. Interestingly President elect Trump appears to be stepping back from some of the rhetoric of the campaign trail. Note, the parallels with Brexit. 

It’s not all bad though?

Ultimately our analysis on good and bad consequences of these shifts is coloured by our own personal views and reinforced by what we’ve read on social and search. What we do know is that both search and social have an amazing ability to unite people behind a common purpose and in many cases this has led to a renewal of our democratic voice and a rise in the ability of a movement of ordinary people to effect change.

The challenge we have is being able to form (or communicate for that matter) a balanced and informed view of any situation, particularly when as one ex-Facebook product designer said “News feed optimizes for engagement….” and “As we’ve learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging.” 


© Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie