What Happens When Google Can Manipulate the Very News It Seeks to Protect?

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In the budding mobile world of the “one answer” that we might get from a voice search we rely ever more on the ability of a service like Google or Facebook to show us a good or even a great answer to our questions. This is particularly important in the realm of news as both Google and Facebook play a huge role determining what news gets seen.

Recently Google highlighted some research that seemed to show a low level of fake listings in Google Maps. But a careful review of the research demonstrated that the conclusions were not warranted by the study.

Google’s blog posts, at both their security and research blogs, highlighted the research into local map spam. In doing so the company demonstrated how easy it is for a large, trusted company to gain press coverage of PR blog posts with questionable facts.

The post touted that “fewer than 0.5% of local searches lead to fake listings.” This snippet, extracted from the research, was broadly quoted resulting in Google’s PR efforts turning into very broad and positive press coverage.

Essentially, Google leveraged poorly designed research about fake listings into broad-based news coverage. Few, if any of the news reports, looked critically at the research and they essentially highlighted Google’s “accomplishments” in this arena.

Google, one of the companies responsible for vetting the news we see, has effectively driven a news cycle that highlighted dubious statistics and put itself in a good light.

It is understandable that Google, under increasing criticism for the quality of its search results, would want some positive press. And yet, whether it was carelessness or callousness, Google, one of the current guardians of the news, participated in creating fake news about its own products.

This is very disturbing. Google is caught in a contradiction. The company has strong financial interest in acting as the gatekeeper to the news — controlling eyeballs controls ad inventory, and the more quality ad inventory it can present, the more the company profits.

But Google also has a strong interest in portraying the company positively in that same news that it effectively controls. By taking a few, very weak facts and highlighting them irresponsibly, the company was, in effect, manipulating the news that we were somehow expecting them to protect.

The implications for society of allowing a few, very powerful corporations to determine what news we can see is troubling in and of itself. This outcome has been a long time coming but has now arrived. It would appear though that the conflict of interest has risen to a newer, even more tenuous level with the realization that Google is just as guilty as the next corporation of trying to influence that news cycles with “fake” facts.

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” — literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” — was penned in the 4th century by a Roman poet. It is a question now more relevant than ever.

Mike Blumenthal, author of the blog “Understanding Google Local” & co-founder of GetFiveStars, is a long time student of local search and when provoked, the occasional Google gadfly.