The giant Internet companies of the 21st century have perfected a new model of information access: the data-driven algorithm. Google anticipates what you are looking for, based on a complex statistical machinery hidden behind the deceptively simple interface of the search box on your computer or your phone. Facebook uses our past behaviors—clicks, likes— to inform predictions of which of your friends’ posts will keep you engaged; and which possible ads that you could see that you will actually click on. Twitter sorts its news feed based on predictions of what you would find most interesting in the moment.
These are “social algorithms”, informational robots aimed at satisfying the individual user; because they bring the full force of immense data about the world to provide the bits of information you desire in the moment. Google will use location information to show you pizza places near you when you search for pizza; Facebook will show you engaging content from friends who you hadn’t even realized that you wanted to engage with. Contrast with old school “broadcast” media, where content is carefully assembled and curated by journalists with aspirations of objectivity and accuracy, who (generally) abide by certain standards of professional practice. Thus, while a central democratic concern regarding the 20th century media system was that, while fairly decentralized, it was culturally and demographically homogeneous and bound by a shared, narrow business model; the central concern of the 21st century media system is that a tiny number of entities control access to news about the world. And, indeed, the notion that such an enormous fraction of the world’s information is filtered through algorithms that computationally capture the corporate interests of a handful of massive world-spanning companies should be deeply worrisome. For example, search for “apricot seeds cancer” on Google, and you will find links that falsely promote apricot seeds as a cure for cancer; links to Youtube videos making the same claim; and ads from Amazon (surely also produced by a social algorithm) pointing to apricot seeds for sale on its site, where the uncurated reviews, in turn make unbelievable claims. The social algorithms play with each other to point people to information that they want, even what they want doesn’t exist.
And, to their credit, companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter have clearly made serious efforts to fight what the World Health Organization calls the infodemic of misinformation regarding the coronavirus. But there is one, more powerful, but incredibly simple thing that they could do which would have enormous impact. They should behave like a 20th century media company, and broadcast, curated, high quality information. Google and others have a latent capacity to broadcast information to most people on the planet. Every time you do a search, every time you look at your Facebook news feed, is a moment when these companies have your attention. And they should cede a smidgen of that attention every day, and at the top of whatever screen you are looking at point you to high quality information regarding coronavirus, regardless of what you were searching for, or are likely to click on.
These companies rarely use this broadcast power—and in matters of democratic disagreement, this is a good thing. But in matters of consensus and high stakes, where time is of the essence, they should use this power. There is precedent for this. Facebook, for example, reminds people when it is election day, and allows you to share that you voted with your peers—something which research has shown increases voting. Google typically has a small link on its homepage pointing to uncontroversial, curated content (“International women’s day” is the link today).
And the next few months—or more—will be international coronavirus days; where many thousands, possibly millions around the world, will die. We will all be making decisions that will be collectively affect who will live and who will die. Facebook should have at the top of its news feeds every day information from the Centers for Disease Control (or other relevant content) on what individuals should do. Similarly, Google should have CDC information at the top of every search page. It is the duty of the Internet giants to take a fraction of the attention that they have from most people on the planet on a daily basis, and show them the information they need to see, not just what they want to see.
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Lazer, D. (2015). The rise of the social algorithm. Science, 348(6239), 1090-1091.
Richtel, M. W. H. O. (2020). WHO fights a pandemic besides coronavirus: an “infodemic.”. New York Times.