Today In Useless Surveys: Some People Want Internet Companies To Stop Filtering News And Some Don't.
from the yeah,-that'll-work dept
Sometimes public sentiment is useful. And sometimes it’s only useful in demonstrating how little the general public understands some issues. It would appear that a new survey done by the Knight Foundation about how the internet giants should handle “news” content is one of the latter ones. While there’s lots of discussion about what the poll results “say,” the only thing they really say is that the public has no clue about how the internet and news works — and that should be the focus. We need much greater tech and media literacy. Unfortunately, the poll seems more likely to do the opposite.
There are two “headline” findings out of the report — and the fact that the two are almost entirely contradictory should have maybe been a warning sign:
- Internet platforms shouldn’t make any effort to “customize” the newsfeed that you see and show the same thing to everyone
- Internet platforms should be “subject to the same regulations as newspapers and TV stations.”
Let’s dig in a bit to the full survey. The first point is actually split into two separate parts, and the results aren’t unsurprising, but (again) really seem to demonstrate media and tech illiteracy more than anything else. First, they were asked if they think it was a good or bad idea for platforms to target news based on interests, and the breakdown here really isn’t that definitive in either direction. It’s pretty split:
This seems perfectly reasonable because the question is kind of… dumb? I mean, it really depends on what kind of service I’m using. If I’m using Twitter, which is a feed-based system where the entire point is to have an ongoing stream of everything the people/organizations I follow tweet, then, I’d be against targeting news, because that’s not what I use Twitter for. If it were something else, like Google News, where the entire point is to recommend news, then I’m a lot more open to it. So, the whole premise of this question seems silly. Really, the issue here is that people should know what kind of site they’re looking at, and whether it’s recommending news or giving you a firehose of news. That’s all. But this question doesn’t get at that, and I’m guessing that’s why the responses are so mixed.
But then there’s a question about whether platforms should “exclude” certain kinds of content. And we get the following responses:
And there’s a related question about how concerned people are about platforms excluding news:
Again, while these results can make headlines, they all seem kind of useless. Most people feel that platforms should exclude content that is “misinformation.” Well, duh. But that doesn’t tell us anything all that interesting, really. And then the latter results seem to conflict with that view, because it claims that the vast majority of people are concerned that platforms excluding news would give people a biased view and restrict expression and such. But… they want to exclude misinformation.
Basically, it all goes back to one of the key problems that we’ve had with the big debate on content moderation. Tons of people are for moderation of “bad” content, but they worry (correctly) that moderation done badly will do bad things. And they don’t trust the moderators from big tech companies. What does that really tell us? Not very much. Because all of these are conflating a bunch of different sites and different issues, such that anyone can basically cherry pick what they want out of it to try to support their own position.
Want to use this study to show that internet platforms should moderate content to get rid of “fake news” (without ever defining fake news)? Show the results that people want platforms to intervene there. Want to use this study to show that people don’t trust internet platforms to moderate at all? Show the other results. What useful points can be gleaned from this? So far, mainly just that this study is useless. So, you see stories about this study claiming that Americans think platforms should stop filtering news, even though only some of the study says that, and other parts say the exact opposite.
And then there’s another hidden tidbit that was the lead in some of the press coverage: that “Americans favor more regulation of internet sites.” Regulation of what and how? Well, again, this study fails completely in that it never actually says. The only bit on regulation is the following:
Seventy-nine percent of Americans strongly or somewhat agree that major internet companies should be subject to the same rules and regulations as newspapers and broadcast news stations are. Twenty percent strongly or somewhat disagree.
That’s it. Literally, that’s it. There’s a little bit more of a discussion about the breakdown based on age, but there is no discussion of what the fuck this even means — because it means literally nothing. What “regulations” do newspapers and broadcast news face? Well, not much? But, it really kind of depends. Broadcast news may face some FCC regulations because they use the public airwaves. But newspapers don’t. And internet sites don’t. Because they don’t use the public airwaves. Other than that, they already face the same basic “rules and regulations.” So it’s not at all clear how — as a bunch of people have claimed — this study supports the idea for “increased” regulation of internet sites.
Honestly, this feels like a kind of push poll and it’s kind of shameful that the Knight Foundation and Gallup — both of which should know better — would do such a thing. After asking all these random amorphous meaningless questions about internet platforms, they then jump in with a question about regulating the platforms without defining or clarifying what regulations they’re even talking about, in an area where the vast majority of the public will have literally no idea what those limited regulations are? What good is that other than to just get people to say “sure, they should all be on an equal footing.”
About the only interesting tidbit I can find in the entire damn study is that those who are moderately technically savvy — defined as “very familiar with computer algorithms” — are marginally more inclined than those who are less tech savvy to say that end users should be responsible for finding accurate and unbiased news, rather than the internet platforms. But that’s really about it.
So, what are we left with? A weird survey that feels more like a push poll, that lets anyone take the info and make any argument they want. When the only conclusions that seem to really come out if it are: (1) this is a really awful and confusing survey, and (2) most people have no idea what regulations there are around news.