Skip to content

The Pitfalls of Internet Media

I wrote most of this article weeks ago, but I stumbled on this business just yesterday and I thought it illustrated the problems I’m discussing here brilliantly.  Apparently the New York Times edited an online article for content after it was posted to completely change the tone.

The Young Turks: New York Times Edits Pro-Bernie Article Into Hit Piece

Rolling Stone: How the ‘New York Times’ Sandbagged Bernie Sanders

The Public Editor responds in the New York Times by saying, “They’re right, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

Since the Public Editor is supposed to be a watchdog for the public trust to insure honesty in media, I guess it’s okay to completely manipulate a story like this.  This is an acceptable standard for our most trusted sources in mainstream media.  And this is how they’re handling the move to get online.*

Globe Molecule by Dawn Hudson (public domain image).

Globe Molecule by Dawn Hudson (public domain image).

In my article from two weeks ago I discussed how the internet is threatening the supremacy of corporate media, particularly broadcast media, along with how this is forever altering the way we do politics.  But the halcyon days of net neutrality are already over.  There are ways in which large corporations are manipulating the internet to their advantage.

The process of media convergence is resulting in a small handful of very large companies being able to control not only what you can watch or read, but your internet access and your phone and cell phone services as well.  Not only that; they are learning how to manipulate search engine results, public perceptions, and social media to their advantage.  Only by being aware of these tactics, and in some cases fighting their lobbyists in the political and legal arenas, can we hope to maintain this precious resource.

Let’s point out some of the problems and discuss solutions:

Problem: Favouritism in search engines

Search engines list the most frequented sites on a given topic first.  In these situations, corporate media still has the advantage because they still have a reputation that encourages a lot of people to go to them first.  Most of us glance at the first five or six listings (because the human brain can only count five objects at once in a glance) and then choose the one we like the sound of best.  If we’re really literate or really interested maybe we read two or three.

Solution: Make sure you skim down the rest of the page, maybe a couple of pages, and try to read at least one differing opinion from your own with an open mind.  And never forget that Google is a large corporation.

Problem: News aggregates

Most of us get our internet news from aggregates such as Huffington Post.  They use software that selects the most popular articles from the most-visited sources.  As a result, they give you the same information that the first six links on Google give you; and they have their biases as well.

Solution: Same as above.  Try to find an opposing viewpoint to the one your favourite news aggregate offers you.

Problem: Information overload

Because there’s so much information out there we often don’t spend the time we should to use our discernment.  Furthermore, knowing this, media outlets, corporations and political parties flood the internet with articles and links that support their bias, which makes it look as though their bias is the most prevalent opinion. The more money available to a given group, the better they are at this.

Solution: Don’t fall for it.  Even if the opinion in question is the prevailing one, that doesn’t make it the “correct” opinion anyway.  Double check the data and decide for yourself.

Problem: Expert opinions

Groups with political motivations will try to lend their viewpoint legitimacy by enlisting experts to support that viewpoint.  But money talks even among “experts,” as anyone who has ever been through a civil lawsuit could tell you.

Solution: Consider the source.  A scientist working for Exxon is not going to support the climate change data.  An avowed atheist is going to ignore any information that supports divine powers.  Pharmaceutical companies are going to discredit any medicinal source that they can’t manufacture and patent.  Economists of the Koch Brothers sponsored Fraser Institute are not going to support economic models that don’t benefit the Koch brothers and their ilk.

Problem: Misleading and clickbait headlines

Most of us don’t read whole articles.  We read the headlines and then skim the text.  As a result we acquire an oversimplified version of the facts, and we miss subtle caveats or even contradictory information contained in the rest of the article.  Journalists writing to the direction of company heads with particular political viewpoints sometimes know this and use it to deliberately downplay facts that contradict those viewpoints, while at the same time claiming a lack of bias because their articles do contain those facts; they’re just written in the internet equivalent of small print at the end.

Solution: If you’re going to read an article, read all of it before casting judgment.

Problem: Siloing and polarization

Because there are so many choices available to us in internet media we often only read the information that supports our pre-existing viewpoints, rather than trying to get a whole picture.  As a result we often find ourselves in echo chambers that gradually lose touch with the big picture.  Also, journalists supporting a bias often deliberately write articles to encourage us to divide into camps without considering individual issues and situations.

Solution: Again, read contradictory articles.  Or find an online friend who supports political views that you don’t that you can have a respectful debate with.

Problem: Copyright laws

Did you know that when an American article posted a clip from the Daily Show, no Canadian could watch it unless we wanted to watch the whole episode?  Copyright laws are applied unequally, depending on the desires of certain groups.  “Fair Use” is actually subject to individual interpretation, so corporations will often enforce their copyright when a site uses their clip or photos in a way that doesn’t support their viewpoint when they wouldn’t if it did; or governments with particular agendas (such as the right wing Harper administration) will make it more difficult for media that disagrees with their preferred narrative to circulate opposing viewpoints by unequally applying copyright claims.

Solution: This is a tricky one because it’s so hard to prove.  A copyright holder has every legal right to enforce their copyright however they wish.  But perhaps small copyright holders should consider the broader implications of draconian copyright enforcement with a view to the long term, rather than buying into the narrative that claims that such laws protect small artists as much as it does big business.

Problem: Internet censorship

Lobbyists working for large media companies, such as Sony, continue to push for legislation that censors what is available on the internet and to whom.  The United Kingdom has been cited as one of the enemies of the internet by Reporters Without Borders largely due to their ISP filtering defaults.  Only the Constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech and vocal protests against anything that limits that freedom have thus far managed to keep lobbyists from successfully censoring the internet in the United States enough to make that list; though the pretenses of enforcing copyright and preventing cyberbullying have weakened those rights.

Solution:  There are only three; petition, protest, and politicize.

Problem: Corporate internet marketing and privacy

Most major internet and social media companies now collect demographic data on us whether we want them to or not.  So do our cell phone providers.  They claim that they do this to provide us with information and advertising suited to our preferences.  In reality this simply increases the siloing and also allows corporations and governments to routinely violate our privacy, even if that’s not exactly what it was intended for.

Solution:  Fight this uninvited snooping any way that you can.  Protest, lobby, and always edit your privacy options, no matter how complicated that is.

Problem:  Obsessive, rude and professional commentors

Did you know that political parties have begun paying people who (at least say that they) share their views to comment on news stories online?  This, along with some genuinely focused people, is why you can’t read an article about sexism in politics without someone ranting about political correctness and feminists, and why you can’t read an article on climate change without some hothead sputtering their defense of oil production.  This makes it sound like more people support such opinions than actually do, which gives said viewpoints the appearance of greater legitimacy.

Also, the toxic nature of internet commentary, fueled by a human tendency to be nastier and more rude to anonymous people they don’t know than they would be to someone they were speaking to in person, creates a confrontational environment where people become more concerned about arguing with people than the issue at hand.

Solution: Don’t comment to engage with commentors.  Better yet, don’t read the comments section at all.  If you wish to engage with the article’s author in any way, be it positive, negative, to ask a question or to provide information, read quickly through all of the comments to see if your issue has already been addressed and then post what you need to post.

Problem: Pretty does not equal accurate

It is human nature to listen to people we find attractive more than people we don’t, and we tend to believe that a more professional look to a site means that the site is more legitimate.  But of course that’s utter nonsense.

Solution: Read between the lines and don’t dismiss something, or someone, just because it isn’t visually appealing.

ProblemOpinions are like . . .

Anybody can say anything they want on the internet.  But often the opinions offered are unsubstantiated, backed by logical fallacies, or unsupported by real data.

Solution:  This problem obviously affects other forms of media too so don’t let that stop you.  But look for logical fallacies and patronize sites that cite their sources over ones that don’t.  Also, consider who is doing the speaking.  Obviously if someone works for the oil industry they probably want to downplay information about the receding ice caps or pollution in Beijing.

Looking to the Future

We have no idea of our own power.  We need to take the information we’re learning online and do the only three things we really have the power to do with it; petition, protest, and politicize.  We are the hope of the future.

The internet is changing the game and providing great freedom of information.  But we have to be willing and able to use it, and we have to use our discernment in order to benefit from it.  Politicians who want public support in the future will have to learn how to navigate the internet with aplomb; and we will have to learn how not to be manipulated if we want to reap its benefits.

*Please note: I include this information only to illustrate my point. I tend to follow stories on Bernie Sanders because I like him and I am disturbed by how the media is treating him, but I would not presume to endorse any Presidential candidate. I’m not from the US and it’s not my right to tell US citizens who they should vote for as their President.

6 Comments »

  1. Several years ago, a good friend of mine who worked for the USGS did some research with an Ivory League professor. I didn’t know the Ivory League guy as well, but I do know my friend has no political agenda. He just likes building machines that can measure what no one has been able to measure before. Anyway, what they did was analyze air bubbles in Cretaceous amber to determine the composition of the atmosphere during that period. The results were splashy, and reported in the mainstream media – at least partly reported. The media reported that the team found that during the time dinosaurs ruled the land, the air was 30% oxygen. It makes sense – bigger animals need more oxygen to support high metabolisms, especially since we discovered dinosaurs were warm-blooded. It led other researchers to speculate that was the reason no very large birds exist today – not enough oxygen for their metabolism.

    But what does this have to do with this article? What the media did not report, but what is in the original scientific paper, was that carbon dioxide content then was about the same then as it is now. This should have been a real game-changer. It is proven that when the earth warms, carbon dioxide exsolves from sea water, but nobody had considered that oxygen does as well! And kiddies, we cannot breathe 30% oxygen for any sustained periods – nor can most mammals. We will all die!

    But instead of being a game-changer, my friend found himself castigated and harassed by his peers. Why? Because everyone seems to have a vested interested in carbon dioxide being the modern-day bodach of the environmental movement, when in fact, it may be excess oxygen that does us all in! So can we trust scientists on either side? No. Can we trust media reporting on either side? No. We can barely trust that the data generated by people with no dog in the fight are not manipulated and try to interpret that data for ourselves. Few of us have the background to do so. So we may go extinct for the wrong reasons….

    And don’t even get me started on mass extinctions and carbon dioxide (it was hydrogen sulfide – had to have been).

    Like

  2. Problem: Favouritism in search engines

    Solution: Use alternative search engines like Duck Duck Go. There is absolutely no excuse to keep using Google.

    Problem: News aggregates

    Solution: Ask friends/family/colleagues for links to news stories that they think are important. Go to FOSS/decentralized social networks (like Diaspora) and find out what news stories are circulating there.

    Problem: Information overload

    Solution: Walk away from the screen. Go check out a book on the subject from the library. Look at its bibliography.

    Problem: Misleading and clickbait headlines

    Solution: Learn to identify tactics employed by editors to grab your attention and sensationalize a topic. Stay away from articles that are obviously clickbait.

    Problem: Copyright laws

    Solution: Anonymous torrenting via public proxies and VPNs. Pastebin.

    Problem: Corporate internet marketing and privacy

    Solution: Reject proprietary software and services whenever possible. Seek out free and open source alternatives. Download browser extensions that nip ad tracking software in the bud. Use VPNs to mask where you are. Jailbreak your phone. Practice security culture. Resist the temptation to overshare on social media.

    Liked by 5 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: