Google and Gatekeepers

Pop quiz! Who won the Super Bowl in 1998? Don’t know? Here, let me help you with that. In the information age, the answer to almost any question – no matter how meaningless – is just a couple clicks away.

But what if Google changed it’s mind? What if, starting tomorrow, anyone who searches “Who won the Super Bowl in 1998?” saw the Cleveland Browns instead of the Denver Broncos?

Okay, good point. Unrealistic example.

What if, starting tomorrow, anyone who searches “Who won the Super Bowl in 1998?” saw the Oakland Raiders instead of the Denver Broncos? Maybe people would know something was off tomorrow, but how long before we lose track? By 2044, would people know to question the search result?

In late June, European antitrust officials fined Google $2.7 billion for manipulating search results so that competitors to Google’s comparison shopping service, Froogle (yes, Froogle) would not appear on the first page returned. This change effectively wiped competing services from the map. The CEO of Foundem, one such competing service that got dunked into another universe, had this to say after news of the $2.7 billion fine:

Google’s search engine has played a decisive role in determining what most of us read, use and purchase online… Left unchecked, there are few limits to this gatekeeper power.

Pretty terrifying, right? How much of what you read, buy, or do is steered by Google? From your morning commute (let me just pop that into Google Maps), to your dinner (just gotta search “how do I know if this chicken went bad,” one moment please) to that weird rash you had last summer (wait who knows I Googled that?), the information that comes through everyone’s favorite search engine has a frightening level of control over our day-to-day lives.

Like it or not, gatekeepers – those individuals or entities that choose what information is disseminated to a broader audience – wield incredible power over what we collectively believe.

This phenomenon is nothing new; the term gatekeeping was first coined by the German psychologist Kurt Zadek Lewin in 1943 and has been commonly used in the communication sciences ever since. Gatekeeping is a useful and necessary mechanism for efficiently distributing information. Someone has to sort out what is truly important, and what isn’t, for those of us who simply don’t have the time to aggregate and sort through mountains of information or news. At the same time, however, relying on gatekeepers creates a real risk. What if the gatekeeper can’t be trusted? This issue shouldn’t feel foreign to any of us. The buzziest phrase of 2017 – the dreaded fake news – is essentially an accusation of unreliable gatekeeping.

So what are you, or any individual, supposed to do to combat unreliable gatekeeping? While there is no easy answer, a good first step is to take a moment to question what you read, watch, or hear. Where is this information coming from? Who said it? Who was the gatekeeper? How trustworthy has that gatekeeper been in the past? Do other sources tell the same story?

Maria Popova, of Brain Pickings fame, is attributed with one of my favorite quotes: “If you don’t have the patience to read something, don’t have the hubris to comment on it.”

The internet has given us instant access to more information than we can fathom. Hold in that excitement for just a brief moment and think about that information before you run with it. If you don’t, you may wake up one day thinking the Browns won the Super Bowl.

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