Don’t expect breaking up Google and Facebook to solve our information woes

“More options are great in theory, but new platforms could also provide a haven for misinformation and hate speech and further prevent us from engaging with opinions that challenge our existing beliefs.”

The overwhelming success of Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma brought increased public attention to the role platforms play in our access to information and exposure to extremist ideas and rhetoric. For years, academics have noted the perils of a platform-driven world (see here, here, and here, just to name a few). Their work sheds light on the exploitive nature of corporations whose design is rooted in keeping people engaged for as long as possible to maximize the data they can sell about us, as well as the pervasive, systemic racism coded into their design.

It looks like 2021 will be the year U.S. lawmakers and regulators finally do something about it. This year, executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter repeatedly testified before the House of Representatives in response to allegations of antitrust violations, spreading misinformation, and censorship. The year wrapped up with 48 state attorneys general joining forces with the federal government to try and force Facebook to divest its ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp. The outcomes from the lawsuit are still up in the air, but deregulation could pave the way for more social networks and search engines.

While the pursuit of breaking up these monoliths is a step in the right direction, more options will not necessarily solve the problem of misinformation, privacy violations, and the amplification of extremism. These problems will persist on niche platforms and won’t change how relevance is manipulated to spread propaganda. Regulation does little to change our role in how we interact with these platforms to find news and information that we rely on to make important decisions.

Breaking up Facebook would mean a 2021 with more niche platforms tailored around audience needs. More options are great in theory, but new platforms could also provide a haven for misinformation and hate speech and further prevent us from engaging with opinions that challenge our existing beliefs. If anything, more choices will likely increase political polarization. This is already happening on spaces like Parler or Rumble, who saw an uptick in users after platforms like Facebook and YouTube began labeling and removing misinformation pertaining to the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

In the case of Google, a breakup wouldn’t necessarily change how people seek out news and information, nor adequately combat the media manipulation efforts currently at play. My work has shown how conservative content creators use search engine optimization to effectively ensure information confirming conservative beliefs dominate the top returns. These sophisticated digital marketing techniques are about exploiting data voids, not Google’s monopoly on search. The tactics of keyword curation and strategic signaling are not bound to any one search engine; digital impact is contingent on a network’s resources and skill sets.

Much like tailoring social networks around user identity, producers’ ability to manipulate search is about understanding the concerns of one’s audience. Over the last year, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how the keywords we start with shape the kinds of returns we receive. Searching for “illegal aliens” vs. “undocumented workers” produces dramatically different results.

A Google search for the phrase “illegal aliens” returns content from conservative thinktanks like the Heritage Foundation, a press release from the Trump White House indicating that illegal immigrants murder U.S. citizens, links to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and news from conservative networks like Fox News. “Undocumented immigrants” returns news coverage about how to protect exploited immigrants, news from The New York Times about Trump’s plan to exclude undocumented immigrants in the Census count, and websites that outline immigration labor laws.

These bifurcated results aren’t contingent on Google personalizing the internet experience (although customization is a big part of why we mostly see news that we agree with). Bing and DuckDuckGo return similar, ideologically siloed, information. DuckDuckGo may be better at protecting users’ privacy, but it is still designed to best match a query based on relevance.

Efforts at thwarting misinformation often focus on the creator of the content. Tools like “Spot the Troll” and information literacy campaigns designed to evaluate the credibility of a source or the sender are important steps in helping users identify false information, but we need more resources that help users construct good questions and find resources to begin with.

Indeed, the power vested in these corporations comes, in part, from our overreliance on them. Some of this power differential can be solved through antitrust regulation; we can’t help but depend on Google when they crush competition through acquisition (e.g., buying YouTube or Waze). But the power of Twitter, Facebook, and Google also comes from the trust we place in them and the continued belief that they are neutral arbitrators of truth.

My hope in 2021 is that we will stop thinking of these spaces as the new “public square.” As Safiya Noble has routinely noted, these corporations are quickly displacing public knowledge infrastructure, filling the gaps legislators have long left behind (high-quality public education, access to libraries, and other traditional sources of knowledge). From the vantage point my data provides, we’re living in parallel internets driven by distinct worldviews. As 2021 commences, I think more of us will try and pop the filter bubbles we’re living in by considering how we too play a role in building the algorithmic walls that surround us.

Francesca Tripodi is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science.

The overwhelming success of Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma brought increased public attention to the role platforms play in our access to information and exposure to extremist ideas and rhetoric. For years, academics have noted the perils of a platform-driven world (see here, here, and here, just to name a few). Their work sheds light on the exploitive nature of corporations whose design is rooted in keeping people engaged for as long as possible to maximize the data they can sell about us, as well as the pervasive, systemic racism coded into their design.

It looks like 2021 will be the year U.S. lawmakers and regulators finally do something about it. This year, executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter repeatedly testified before the House of Representatives in response to allegations of antitrust violations, spreading misinformation, and censorship. The year wrapped up with 48 state attorneys general joining forces with the federal government to try and force Facebook to divest its ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp. The outcomes from the lawsuit are still up in the air, but deregulation could pave the way for more social networks and search engines.

While the pursuit of breaking up these monoliths is a step in the right direction, more options will not necessarily solve the problem of misinformation, privacy violations, and the amplification of extremism. These problems will persist on niche platforms and won’t change how relevance is manipulated to spread propaganda. Regulation does little to change our role in how we interact with these platforms to find news and information that we rely on to make important decisions.

Breaking up Facebook would mean a 2021 with more niche platforms tailored around audience needs. More options are great in theory, but new platforms could also provide a haven for misinformation and hate speech and further prevent us from engaging with opinions that challenge our existing beliefs. If anything, more choices will likely increase political polarization. This is already happening on spaces like Parler or Rumble, who saw an uptick in users after platforms like Facebook and YouTube began labeling and removing misinformation pertaining to the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

In the case of Google, a breakup wouldn’t necessarily change how people seek out news and information, nor adequately combat the media manipulation efforts currently at play. My work has shown how conservative content creators use search engine optimization to effectively ensure information confirming conservative beliefs dominate the top returns. These sophisticated digital marketing techniques are about exploiting data voids, not Google’s monopoly on search. The tactics of keyword curation and strategic signaling are not bound to any one search engine; digital impact is contingent on a network’s resources and skill sets.

Much like tailoring social networks around user identity, producers’ ability to manipulate search is about understanding the concerns of one’s audience. Over the last year, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how the keywords we start with shape the kinds of returns we receive. Searching for “illegal aliens” vs. “undocumented workers” produces dramatically different results.

A Google search for the phrase “illegal aliens” returns content from conservative thinktanks like the Heritage Foundation, a press release from the Trump White House indicating that illegal immigrants murder U.S. citizens, links to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and news from conservative networks like Fox News. “Undocumented immigrants” returns news coverage about how to protect exploited immigrants, news from The New York Times about Trump’s plan to exclude undocumented immigrants in the Census count, and websites that outline immigration labor laws.

These bifurcated results aren’t contingent on Google personalizing the internet experience (although customization is a big part of why we mostly see news that we agree with). Bing and DuckDuckGo return similar, ideologically siloed, information. DuckDuckGo may be better at protecting users’ privacy, but it is still designed to best match a query based on relevance.

Efforts at thwarting misinformation often focus on the creator of the content. Tools like “Spot the Troll” and information literacy campaigns designed to evaluate the credibility of a source or the sender are important steps in helping users identify false information, but we need more resources that help users construct good questions and find resources to begin with.

Indeed, the power vested in these corporations comes, in part, from our overreliance on them. Some of this power differential can be solved through antitrust regulation; we can’t help but depend on Google when they crush competition through acquisition (e.g., buying YouTube or Waze). But the power of Twitter, Facebook, and Google also comes from the trust we place in them and the continued belief that they are neutral arbitrators of truth.

My hope in 2021 is that we will stop thinking of these spaces as the new “public square.” As Safiya Noble has routinely noted, these corporations are quickly displacing public knowledge infrastructure, filling the gaps legislators have long left behind (high-quality public education, access to libraries, and other traditional sources of knowledge). From the vantage point my data provides, we’re living in parallel internets driven by distinct worldviews. As 2021 commences, I think more of us will try and pop the filter bubbles we’re living in by considering how we too play a role in building the algorithmic walls that surround us.

Francesca Tripodi is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science.

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