Agnostic News: Conformity and Diversity in a New Media World

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'Google News is a computer-generated news site that aggregates headlines from news sources worldwide, groups similar stories together and displays them according to each reader's personalized interests...

Our articles are selected and ranked by computers that evaluate, among other things, how often and on what sites a story appears online....

As a result, stories are sorted without regard to political viewpoint or ideology and you can choose from a wide variety of perspectives on any given story.'
We often read about the explicit ways in which those in power use the media to manipulate public opinion through censorship, 'spinning', and news management. However, each type of media (TV, the Internet, the Newspaper) affects political consciousness and ideology, even in the absence of any editorial control. 

Let's look at a contemporary example: These days, more and more news in consumed through aggregators such as Google News. By definition (see above), the headlines on Google News's home page are determined automatically, based on the number of times each story is mentioned in various online sources. So, while in the past a story would become popular because it was important, today, stories become important because they are popular.

In theory, this type of "agnostic news" is ideology-free. In practice, a world in which "Popular is the new Important" means that while the masses have access to more information than ever before, their chances of coming across an opinion that is truly subversive are increasingly low. If they choose to look, they can find almost anything they want; but as passive consumers of tailored-made news, they are exposed to a narrower scope of opinions than ever. 

Paradoxically, this may bring about a new form of conformity through diversity which, in turn, serves to sustain whoever happens to be in power. As E.E. Schatschneider points out in the Semi Sovereign People, 'the definition of alternatives is the supreme instrument of power' (summarized in PDF). If the alternative views suggested to the public are by definition those which are already quite popular, the odds of significant change through political action are slim.

2 Comments

Define "truly subversive opinion".

I like Google News precisely because it shows the same story from many different viewpoints. The top link for a given story might be a die-hard capitalist's editorial, or a highly critical Al Jazeera article, or something from the Tehran Times.

I don't pay attention to the source when I click, and only halfway through an article will think "Wait. This doesn't sound objective. This reads like the thoughts of someone who has strong convictions, and is trying to warp reality to fit their preconceptions." It's best to judge arguments based purely on the merit of the argument itself, rather than the "credibility" of the writer or paper. It's best to see the "news" through a variety of filters and opinions, to better form an objective picture.

You are missing the point. Indeed, Google News gives you different angles on the same story - but it also decides which stories you will read about. So, as I noted above, it gives you a feeling of diversity - of having many angles on the same issue - but at the same time it chooses which issues you will be able to access.

Got it?

Note: The views and observations expressed on this web site are published for the sake of public discussion and do not represent my personal opinion or the opinion of my companies, clients, and/or employers. If you would like to get my opinion on anything, ask me.

This page contains a single entry by Dror Poleg published on December 16, 2009 5:06 PM.

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