Internet Bias Distorts News

The New York Analysis of Policy and Government presents a three-part examination of the political bias found on search engines and social media sites.

There is little doubt that the internet is a powerful, and perhaps decisive, force in the 21st century American political environment.  According to a study by the Pew Research Center  “A majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media…”

But as the role of internet as a principal source of information expands, there is justifiable concern about the accuracy and objectivity of the information presented.  Search Engine Watch notes that “Search engines may think of themselves as being objective but like any other media company, editorial judgements are made and are factored into automated operations. Engines trust certain sources more than others”

An NYU research project found that “search engines raise not merely technical issues but also political ones. Our study of search engines suggests that they systematically exclude (in some cases by design and in some, accidentally) certain sites and certain types of sites in favor of others, systematically giving prominence to some at the expense of others.”

The problem of using the internet as a source of news or general information has been noted by those using it for not just general research but for specific professional purposes as well. A Forbes study reports that “Social media like Facebook and Twitter  are far too biased to be used blindly by social science researchers, two computer scientists have warned. Writing in…Science, Carnegie Mellon’s Juergen Pfeffer and McGill’s Derek Ruths have warned that scientists are treating the wealth of data gathered by social networks as a goldmine of what people are thinking – but frequently they aren’t correcting for inherent biases in the dataset.”

The issue is of overwhelming importance. Kalev Leetaru wrote in Forbes that “Far from democratizing how we access the world’s information, the web has in fact narrowed those information sources. Much as large national chains and globalization have replaced the local mom-and-pop shop with the megastore and local craftsmanship with assembly line production, the internet is centralizing information access from a myriad websites and local newspapers and radio/television shows to single behemoth social platforms that wield universal global control over what we consume. Indeed, social media platforms appear to increasingly view themselves no longer as neural publishing platforms but rather as active mediators and curators of what we see. This extends even to new services like messaging. David Marcus, Facebook’s Vice President of Messaging recently told Wired: “Unlike email where there is no one safeguarding the quality and the quantity of the stuff you receive, we’re here in the middle to protect the quality and integrity of your messages and to ensure that you’re not going to get a lot of stuff you don’t want.” In short, Facebook wants to act as an intelligent filter onto what we see of the world. The problem is that any filter by design must emphasize some content and views at the expense of others.”

Robert Schlesinger, writing for U.S. News,  explains that “while big social media – be it Facebook or Google News – has news-purveying components they’re not news organizations as such and don’t have news missions. They’re part of larger companies with agendas that don’t necessarily include fairly informing the citizenry. And they have real power, regardless of whether they’re using it or not.”

The internet research organization Can I Rank found that “Although internet search engines like Google play an increasingly prominent role shaping voter opinions and perception of issues and candidates, their ranking algorithms aren’t designed to provide a fairly balanced or completely honest representation of controversial issues…Among our key findings were that top search results were almost 40% more likely to contain pages with a “Left” or “Far Left” slant than they were pages from the right. Moreover, 16% of political keywords contained no right-leaning pages at all within the first page of results. Our analysis of the algorithmic metrics underpinning those rankings suggests that factors within the Google algorithm itself may make it easier for sites with a left-leaning or centrist viewpoint to rank higher in Google search results compared to sites with a politically conservative viewpoint.” The study found that 16% of political keyword searches yielded no conservative-oriented pages within the initial search results.

The Report continues tomorrow.