The coming of the internet was seen as the end of informational asymmetry as information would now be freely accessible to all without bias. It was to be the independence from the hegemony of media channels which used to (and still) selectively air or not air news. Internet broke open these gates, giving us access to the information we wanted. Or, did it?
The unprecedented spread of this virtual web was preceded by the invention of cheaper personal computers and the growth of wireless connectivity. Today, especially among the youth, the bulk of their information comes from Google, Facebook or Yahoo News. An average online citizen of the world spends 40 minutes every day online. In India, Google and other sites run by the search-engine, ranked as the top destination in June 2012 reaching nearly 95 percent of the online population, or roughly 57.8 million people aged 15 and older. Facebook came in second followed with 50.9 million visitors (83.4 percent reach), Yahoo! Sites (65.5 percent reach) and Microsoft Sites (48.1 percent reach) are next on the list. Role of media as the watchdogs of democracy is now being shared by online media and social media too. When people form opinions and make choices based on what Google or Facebook tells them, it is high time we thought of how/why they tell us what they tell us.
The influence of online media is not restricted only to changing our shopping habits, but is powerful enough to overthrow ruling governments. The Jasmine revolution and especially the Egyptian revolution owe its success in large measure to the social media. America’s own Tahrir Square came about with the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. The proposal for this was started online and became viral online with more than 100 pages in Facebook and #OWS trending on twitter. This online visibility of the movement brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets. India also sees such calls for action online. I saw first hand a candle light march in solidarity with Nirbhaya rape case being organized in my home city of Calicut. This was pulled off by the spirited effort of three students of Class XI on Facebook over three days. It is this potential of online media that, that scares and then forces governments to shut down Internet services whenever they anticipate large protests.
But all is not well with online media. As Spiderman would definitely agree, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. Tailor made search results have become the norm on the internet now. Google, Facebook and even Yahoo News show customized pages to its users. Google uses an algorithm which looks into 57 different aspects like your location, the browser you use, the computer you are using etc. to give customised search results. Talking of the newsfeed in Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg said, “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa “. An internet based on such a thought can do more harm than good. Most of us might have noticed how Facebook newsfeed shows us updates about people and pages whose earlier updates we have ‘liked’ and stops displaying updates we usually don’t tend to ‘like’. Alarmingly internet searches show us what it thinks we want to see. Such customization aimed at making the internet more relevant, shuts out a large chunk of news from our view and we never get to know what is being edited out.
The idea of an internet which at its inception was to provide us with no lack of information is increasingly putting us inside a filter bubble and we are back where we started. If editors in News channels and newspapers edited out content earlier, this task is now taken up by algorithms. These algorithms are developed and modified regularly by the corporations that own these services. Surely, editing content is no sin, and is more like a necessary evil. But, if what is edited out is decided by parameters like your browsing history, your location etc., then the online media or internet fails in its vision of providing all perspectives without bias.
Internet is no longer standard or uniform. What you see in India is not what’s seen in the US or Middle East or Pakistan. So the next time you do a Google search or read Yahoo News, know that there is another angle to the story too. For now, there’s no one to watch the watchers.