I woke up tomorrow to two newsletters that I could not help looking like two sides of the same coin:…
I woke up tomorrow to two newsletters that I could not help looking like two sides of the same coin: Brazil chose a person who very clearly looks like a demagogic who waved social media to win and Google finally added a New feed on its mobile website.
These two things are of course not related. But after a weekend where we learned about two domestic terrorists radicalized by social media, all I could think of about Google’s new attempt to push an algorithmic newsflow was: “Hi Google, read the freaking room.”
We live at a time when we see real tragedies inspired by some kind of awfulness on social media every day. We sometimes struggle to clearly define the online causal relationships to these tragedies, but in recent weeks it does not seem so difficult. So it seems like a rather incessant time for Google to decide to add another newsflow to millions of (or billions) people. It has probably not been once in 201
8 when Google could have chosen to start a new news feed that would not make me feel so, but this week seems particularly bad.
I apologize for using a question at the headline for this story, but I think it’s appropriate because there are many more questions than answers right now. “Why now?” The question is best answered the most typical way for all technical companies: although Google’s newsflow was announced in September, it’s ready to send now. But the more basic “why” is more difficult. Google, like Apple and Facebook and Twitter and everyone else, apparently really seems to be in the news aggregate game. It’s probably because it’s a pretty good way to get people to watch a webpage, and making you look at webpages is basically how Google makes money.
But the more urgent question is “what does that mean?” Because again, the world’s busiest web page gets a news feed, so I think it will mean something . And as far as I can tell, try to figure out “what does that mean?” Just leads to more questions.
Before I cite them, here’s some context. Facebook has become a traffic driver for news sites, but The Verge and others have seen that traffic replaced with Google AMP, the company’s new standard for fast-paced webpages. With AMP, Google has become an even bigger traffic driver for news sites, as sites participating in AMP can be featured in the carousel of featured stories that appear at the top of search results. Now, these stories will also appear in the Google News feed on the mobile search page. I suspect this will also drive a huge amount of traffic.
This feed has already been available for a long time: In addition to the recently launched Google News app, feed is also in Google’s mobile app, and it appears when you turn left from the Home screen on many Android phones. These screens also drive traffic for news sites, but nowhere nearly as much as the AMP search cellars, from what we can tell.
The point with all of this is that putting news flow on Google’s website is a big deal because, I suspect, it will overlap an already existing trend: there will be much more traffic coming from Google’s algorithmic flow, meaning that there is much more incentive to play the algorithm.
Google has, for its credit, been quite successful recently in presenting the news responsibly: The Google News app is cured, has many visual indicators that explain why you see something and little buttons to help you see less of it. But make no mistake, Google takes a lot of responsibility by allowing machines to launch news stories about what might be the most popular website on the planet.
So: Will Google continue to be responsible in its efforts to distribute news? Will it increase our filter bubbles? Will it contribute to the radicalization of policies? Answering these questions will be incredibly difficult, because even though the Google News feed is powered by algorithms that can make the same mistake as Facebook did, it’s not basic social.
The newsflow is, as the company likes to say sometimes, “Your own personal Google”. When Google placed false information in its carousel, we were able to replicate the searches and discover the problem, but if Google’s news feed presents false information on any search page, only those who know that it happened is the person who is reading it and Google. Facebook’s news feed is difficult to replicate, but individual stories on Facebook have liked and share metrics that appear on them. There’s really no way to measure what’s happening to Google’s newsflow.
The mechanics of who sees what, when and how much it’s a lot. Just ask one of Google’s other algorithmically driven content feeds, YouTube. It is a haven for extremism and conspiracy, and YouTube is making it worse with the next video project that can quickly send you into a cloudy, dark hole. I have not seen many reports that Google News has had similar issues, but it’s worth noting that Google does not have a sterling track record.
When we perform literary postmortem on terrorist acts and choices that went wrong, we are able to see many of the messages people post on different social networks and track their spread and popularity. You can count like and retweets, and you can rate the spread of platform information. Google News is not offered the risk of incorrect data spread, but it is also a black box. If that causes problems, there is a very good chance that we will never know.
Truth is another matter Google will ever know. This is the case with advanced machine learning and AI: why the computer does what it does is not always understandable. So, even if you imagine a scenario where Google is being told to tell the world that it displayed a user’s inaccurate information in the news feed, Google may not get a clear picture of why did. 19659020] One last thing: From a business perspective, the purpose of a newsflow to usually place ads between the stories, right? It’s the next shoe to let go, I bet.
– Dieter Bohn (@backlon) October 29, 2018
I have other questions. Being very online has recently been strenuous. Attempting to cure the information you bring is difficult and becomes harder, and now we will all have a new flow of information to cure.
Here’s a much smaller example: I try to pay less attention to American football. My reasons are personal (brainwashing and NFL owners trying to suppress speech), but it takes a while for Google to get the message. It knows I was a big fan fan so it shows me points and recaps. I can click on the different buttons to tell Google I’m not interested, but I have to admit that I’m still watching sometimes. Now I’m worried that every crane, every roll, every time I’m in a news story when I look around my phone sends an incorrect signal to Google. It’s literally on my phone something I feel guilty of.
It’s just football and it’s also the personal experience of a person who likes to know if these news feeds and is more informed than the average person about how and why they are working. I have no idea what most people will think and experience and feel when they encounter another new newsflow. Probably not anything so much, but then again, who knows?
Maybe this is good. Perhaps Google who drives harder on news will generally be a good thing. Perhaps the company is sincere and serious about improving the quality and accuracy of the information we see online, and posting a news feed on its website is a powerful counterweight to the trough we get from other sources. (By the way, that’s what Apple says it does with Apple News.) Or maybe I’m thinking about all this, and nobody really goes to Google dot com anymore, and it’s not that big of a deal. 19659026] However, there are many maybes. The worst thing is maybe we may never know the answers to any of these questions.
Remarks: My wife works for Oculus, a division of Facebook. You can see my ethical statement here .