According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the very act of observing changes what is being observed. In the field of psychology, the equivalent is called the Hawthorne, or observer, effect. As laws of nature tend to be universally applicable, the same phenomenon exists in other fields, including the computer and information sciences. When Google, for example, delivers a search result, whether derived from its search algorithm or sponsored content, Google changes the outcome of the next search result. Because Google values content largely on popularity and organizes information based on their relevance, every time an internet user accepts a search result that search result gains value and non-selected results lose value. In other words, Google changes what people are searching for by changing what people can find.
Google has been a terribly successful and revolutionary company. It has, however, faced mounting criticism in recent years as the world learns that its “sophisticated,” and once seemingly infallible, technology has many limits and imperfections. Irrelevant to worthless results are an annoying problem that create very real problems for people who rely on Google to help them find the information they need, which is a lot of people, but misinformation, confirmation bias, propaganda, censorship, and the suppression of speech are much bigger problems. In the context of a Global Information War, the shortcomings of Google explain why there is a problem and what possible solutions exist. It starts by recognizing there is an issue with how the internet values online content, i.e. the currency of the internet is popularity.
Just because a lot of people believe people something is true does not make it true. The popularity of a fact or idea has no bearing on its validity. By allowing people to filter their searches to news sites, for example, Google helps mitigate the need to evaluate the validly of every search result as a credible source of news. Coupled with Google’s efforts to crackdown on spam and trolls, however, this approach helps suppress alternative views, little known facts, and emerging authorities on subjects. People need hard facts, such as statistics, measurements, and basic descriptions, to understand the world, which researchers and journalists can provide. Unfortunately, raw data alone is of little value to most people. Hard facts must be properly interpreted into applicable forms before people can use them, before they have value.
News sites provide both hard facts as well as analysis. Sites featuring the work of researches have a greater focus on hard facts, but they also offer analysis. They are sites that feature established authorities. Because credentials and professional achievements help determine the credibility of sources, sites featuring established authorities are highly valuable. That said, it is the strength of the argument that ultimately determines the validity, and value, of the analysis, not who made it. Credentials and reputation only suggest a source has the tools to make a proper analysis. More importantly, all professionals are biased. Consequently, the facts and analysis provided by authoritative sources often reflect that bias.
When companies like Google promote these credible, yet biased, sources over less popular, less established authorities, they are reinforcing that bias and suppressing alternative views. There are established authorities and emerging authorities. A free and open internet provides emerging authorities opportunities to compete with establishment authorities. Regrettably, the internet also allows non-credible sources to drown out credible sources. In essence, the solution has been to suppress un-established authorities by failing to recognize them as credible sources while allowing them to be overwhelmed by the popularity of general sites. The problem with the internet is that the value of a website is mainly determined by its popularity.
In contrast, the social value of a website comes from the value of its content, which an information technology companies like Google cannot determine. Peer-review and accreditation have traditionally been the only effective widespread means to differentiate professional from novice. An established authority with a massive following like CNN, whether or not search results are filtered to solely include news sites, will always be considered a high value site. In contrast, a porn site or amusing cat video will always be more valuable than the blog of a independent researcher. With that in mind, it is important to recognize that the internet does not simply exist to give CNN more viewers. It exists to empower internet users with information and alternative perspectives.
Before Google and the so-called Internet 2.0, the internet had a solution to the lack of academic and intellectual diversity promoted by established news sources. Because the views of skilled analysts and other professionals is what people really need to better understand the world, the forums and blogs of Internet 1.0 helped connect a diverse range of average people and experts under important topics they focus on. Today, social media platforms have incorporated these things into the suite of applications they offer, but they are largely treated as forms of entertainment, omitted from the category of credible sources, and overwhelmed by personal blogs and forums. Because popularity determines the value of sites, alternative and credible authorities struggle to emerge as established authorities increasingly domain the internet.
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