Saturday, February 27, 2016

Quickies: Concentrations Of Influence

     Americans are justly suspicious of concentrations of power – more of us remember the “separation of powers” effect of the Constitution than the limiting of powers by enumeration it was intended to provide – but we might not be suspicious enough of concentrations of influence.

     Despite conservatives’ general disdain for the Old Media and preference for the new, digitally-enabled alternatives, we seldom ponder the concentration of the influences behind those alternatives. This article suggests that we give the matter some thought. It focuses first on Google, by far the most popular of the Internet search engines:

     The Google search engine is so good and so popular that the company’s name is now a commonly used verb in languages around the world.... Google has become the main gateway to virtually all knowledge, mainly because the search engine is so good at giving us exactly the information we are looking for, almost instantly and almost always in the first position of the list it shows us after we launch our search – the list of ‘search results’.

     That ordered list is so good, in fact, that about 50 per cent of our clicks go to the top two items, and more than 90 per cent of our clicks go to the 10 items listed on the first page of results; few people look at other results pages, even though they often number in the thousands, which means they probably contain lots of good information. Google decides which of the billions of web pages it is going to include in our search results, and it also decides how to rank them. How it decides these things is a deep, dark secret – one of the best-kept secrets in the world, like the formula for Coca-Cola.

     Google’s algorithms for search and presentation order, therefore, steer the attention of Internet users in a centralized, concentrated fashion. Does this have a pernicious effect on what people know...or think they know? Author Robert Epstein fears that it might, particularly with regard to elections:

     In most countries, 90 per cent of online search is conducted on Google, which gives the company even more power to flip elections than it has in the US and, with internet penetration increasing rapidly worldwide, this power is growing. In our PNAS article, Robertson and I calculated that Google now has the power to flip upwards of 25 per cent of the national elections in the world with no one knowing this is occurring. In fact, we estimate that, with or without deliberate planning on the part of company executives, Google’s search rankings have been impacting elections for years, with growing impact each year. And because search rankings are ephemeral, they leave no paper trail, which gives the company complete deniability.

     Various commentators have cast a suspicious eye at Google before, of course. If the problem is real, it’s a stiff one. The magnitude of capital investment and degree of technological prowess required to compete with Google is enormous. You’d have a better shot at cutting into General Motors' market for cars. That naturally limits the possibilities for competing with it.

     I find it noteworthy that Google’s only significant competitor in the search business is Microsoft’s Bing. That’s a gauge of how big one must be to compete in the search-engine market. It’s also a measure of the importance concentrations of both information and access to information can have to our perceptions and beliefs...and how utterly invisible those influences have become.


Reg T said...

I've been using Start Page and Ixquick for several years now, and Duck Duck Go more recently for searches. Supposedly these are separate from Google and Yahoo search engines, but I don't know that for a fact. Any idea if these are safer and less manipulated than Google?

I've known for some time that Google searches limited and directed your searches. At first, I believed it was for economic purposes, pointing you towards favored (by Google) retailers, but I now believe it also directs you toward sites that lean toward agendas favored by Google and the Left, restricting access to more conservative sources of information, unless you know how to access them more directly. I'm pretty certain my search results have been limited by what Google (and Yahoo, if it is actually a different search engine) allow to come up as results.

Linda Fox said...

I was going to write a post about this, but got busy. Thanks - I'll spread it around.

Dean said...

I've been using It is a search engine out of the the Soviet Union. I figure that if I'm going to get spied on, it may as well be by professionals. Seriously though, over the past 20 years the ex-USSR has become what the US was supposed to be. Free enterprise, low tax rates, etc, etc. Despite the recent unpleasantness with Comrade Putin the Soviet Union has moved forward while US has retrenched into crony capitalism and Trump vs. Clinton.