In December 2018, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released a preliminary report into digital platforms. It is not a stretch to say that the digital platforms in question, Facebook and Google, hold a monopoly over how online content is delivered to users. It is similarly, a fundamental truth that people will believe the news that complements their beliefs and values. Subsequently, it’s clear how these digital platforms feed confirmation bias on an unprecedented level.
As our previous article on this mentioned, the report recommended that a regulatory body monitor how Facebook and Google ‘rank’ news. That is namely, news and media articles.
In this article, we’ll discuss the mystique which surrounds how news is ‘ranked’ on these platforms. Further, we’ll go into why a regulatory body could be the anti-venom to the viral spread of fake news.
Blame it on the algorithm
Both Google and Facebook rank their news (and all content, generally) based on algorithms. An algorithm is an automated process which, in this case, sorts and orders news. Some news pieces will achieve top-billing status, whilst some won’t be seen at all. Some relevant factors the algorithm considers are the date of publication, geographical location, and the number of clicks the article has already garnered.
Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm is a topic of fascination for many because it’s still a closely-guarded secret. What can be said is that Facebook’s focus on user experience means we only see content that we will enjoy and engage with. This means that in addition to seeing activity from friends users interact with regularly, users are likely to see news content which aligns to their beliefs. As Eli Pariser puts it, information bubbles mean that what used to be a balanced information ‘diet’, is now a diet where people consume only their ‘dessert’ and not their staple ‘fruits and vegetables’.
Problems with news aggregation
For many, these digital platforms have made access to information easier and more digestible. However, this carries it’s own problems. As the preliminary report notes, digital content is not subject to the same checks that traditional print media is. This includes:
- Fact checking
- Reliability of sources
The way in which news is presented to us can mean that we take it as gospel. This is in itself problematic, but can also have flow-on effects – such as the outcome of elections.
How could a regulatory body help?
One of the ACCCs recommendations is to educate users how to discern between legitimate and ‘fake’ news stories. Beyond this, the ACCC has recommended that a regulatory authority ‘monitor, investigate and report’ on whether digital platforms arrange their content in a way which favours themselves over their competitors.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook has voiced its concern over this recommendation saying that it could cause ‘significant harm’. The idea of a regulator wielding power over what users can see online may sound like digitised censorship. However, it is surely a better alternative than to what happens now.
Currently, users only see what they want to see – whether it has any journalistic merit or not.
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