Google, Facebook turn powerful editors; Lok Sabha elections will test their readiness

Updated: March 25, 2019 7:11:17 AM

In a polarised political environment characterised by general scepticism of many established institutions, news found via search can acquire an attractive veneer of technological objectivity, and news accessed via social media an appealing aura of authenticity

In a new survey of English-language Indian internet users, we find that a third name search engines as their main source of online news, and a quarter social media—in each case, overwhelmingly Google and Facebook respectively.

By Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Given that an estimated quarter billion Indians have gone online since the last general election, they just might be. Whereas the news that people get via television, radio, and print is selected by human editors, on the internet, people increasingly rely on search engines and social media that rely on algorithmic curation.

In a new survey of English-language Indian internet users, we find that a third name search engines as their main source of online news, and a quarter social media—in each case, overwhelmingly Google and Facebook respectively. Only 18% named going direct to the websites or apps of news publishers as their main source of online news.

Strikingly, our respondents not only rely on search and social for news. They also say they trust the news that they get there at least as much as news more broadly. For example, 45% say they trust news in search, and 34% for news in social media, compared to just over a third who say they trust news overall.

This is strikingly different from what we have seen in other countries, where people often trust news media more than they trust news found via search engines or social media. In a polarised political environment characterised by general scepticism of many established institutions, news found via search can acquire an attractive veneer of technological objectivity, and news accessed via social media an appealing aura of authenticity.

Worryingly, many Indians do not seem to understand how the platforms they increasingly rely on for news actually operate. When asked how most of the individual decisions about what news stories to show on Facebook are made, only 26% of our respondents correctly identify algorithms, the automated systems that rank what people see on social media and make decisions about what to display. Many believe human editors and journalists determine what news they see in their news feed.

In a sense, of course, they are right. Even though both Google and Facebook rely on algorithmic curation to serve news every day to millions of Indians, the stories themselves are often written by professional journalists and thus ultimately under the editorial responsibility of top people at major news organisations with significant reach online. Prime minister Modi and a few other major politicians have built significant social media followings that help them circumvent news media and set the agenda, but news media are still crucial for how most people navigate politics.
In this sense, Jaideep Bose, Ravish Kumar, and their colleagues and competitors at other major news media are still the most powerful editors in India, and Google and Facebook have not so much supplanted them as supplemented them.

As people increasingly rely on search engines and social media for news, the information that reaches them has passed through two sets of gatekeepers: firstly, editors, who decide what to publish, then the algorithms that increasingly shape what we see online.

This is an important change from the single set of gatekeepers that characterise offline media, and means that Google and Facebook play an increasingly important and often challenging role in the Indian media environment.

If a company sets out, as Google does, “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, it will confront the fact that the line between information and misinformation can be hard to draw, and that people sometimes actively seek out disinformation. If a company aims to help people “stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them”, as Facebook does, it will have to deal with the fact that not all expression is equally benign, and that people sometimes actively share false and misleading content.

Owning, operating, and profiting from the algorithms that more and more Indians rely on to find news gives Google and Facebook great power and great responsibilities—like the human editors who came before them. The 2019 elections will be a decisive test of whether they are ready for it.

-The author is Director of the Reuters Institute for the study of journalism and professor of political communication at the University of Oxford. Follow him on Twitter @rasmus_kleis

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