If you are reading this, you probably reached us via a social media platform. It might've been a retweet. Based on data from past blogs, we'd expect about 35% of you to arrive from Twitter. Perhaps you follow us on Facebook (thanks!), making up the 10% who come to our blog from there. Maybe a friend shared it with you, on a social media platform (hello another 20% of you), or you just checked your email and have a newsletter from us (this varies depending on the story). Or perhaps your "Internet news" pigeon just arrived with the URL taped to its leg (well done on finding us!).
In 2018, online platforms are where many of us receive more of our news, connect with more of our friends, family and work connections, buy goods, and consume much of our entertainment. We've been thinking about platforms a fair bit over the last six months, since we all learned what a Cambridge Analytica is.
Around the world, people have been coming to terms with what our relationships to these platforms mean.Online platforms slide into the middle of our human relationships and other things we care about to gain our attention. Watching us listen and talk, platforms algorithmically gather up that attention into a powerful force for their own business motives. But that power can also be used for other purposes: to learn about our behaviour as individuals and societies, or to feed us marketing lines, political ideologies, or disinformation that clouds our sense of what is real.
The nature of platforms has made them a powerful amplifier of information, either factual or false, that is shared with the intention of shaping audiences' minds. The term fake news has risen in prominence, but its use has been distorted by those who benefit from conflating false information with unfavourable information.
Our 2017 Internet users survey showed us that 64% of New Zealanders are concerned about the amount of misleading or wrong information available online. This is something New Zealanders care about, and may not know what to do about.
InternetNZ's vision is for a better Internet for a better world. We are living this vision by focusing on how platforms contribute to the better Internet we want.
We want to explore:
- What are the issues New Zealanders need to consider regarding content on platforms?
- Who is affected by these issues? What is at stake?
- How do markets, laws, norms, and the architecture of Internet platforms create and exacerbate the problems we see arising?
- What do New Zealanders want from these platforms? For themselves? For society?
- How do we get there? Does New Zealand need to regulate? If so, what are our options for effective regulation?
And we want your help.
Join our discussion by contributing to our GitHub repo, where we have collated all of the references we have consulted in our research to date. You can also email us with your thoughts on firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will use your input to inform our work, and put out a report later this year.
This blogpost is a brief look at some of the issues InternetNZ is interested in, regarding the way platforms are capturing our attention, shaping the way we transact, and potentially shaping the way we think.
What is a platform?
For our purposes, a platform is an online business, based on facilitating interaction (communication, transactions etc) between users. Platforms are the agora, or central meeting space, where consumers, producers, content creators all flock, and they succeed when they can capture a market, and build on network effects to attract and keep people's attention.
AirBnb owns no property, Uber owns no cars, Facebook creates no content. These platforms are valuable for their scale and audience, and the data they capture, rather than any tangible assets. What a company owns matters less than what it can connect.
We are growing increasingly reliant on platforms, while also growing increasingly aware of the vulnerable situation we have put ourselves in, where participating in these platforms means sharing our data and attention in a way that the platforms and others can see, sell, and influence.
- How do we define what a platform is?
- Are platforms allowing misinformation to be shared, amplified, and trusted?
- If so, what characteristics of platforms are causing this?
- What are the characteristics that allow platforms to be used to share misinformation, have that misinformation be amplified, and have that misinformation be trusted as legitimate information?
A marketplace of ideas or a perfect storm of false information?
Information disorder, bots, algorithms and filter bubbles work together to create a landscape, designed to maximise your attention rather than to give you control. At the platform level, this is probably not a conspiracy to shape discourse, but the result of a complex system with some unexpected perverse incentives.
Cambridge Analytica gathered user data to craft and target political messages, intending to influence election outcomes. Users may not have expected it, but the mass collection of their data enabled by online platforms enabled it anyway.
Algorithmic feeds can make it cheap and easy to deliver messages to people. Easy targeting of those messages can separate audiences, meaning there's no real public debate or oversight. By sharing bad information, bad actors and others can cause a spiral of information disorderwhere it is hard to know what anyone else is seeing, whether other accounts are bots or humans, and whether disagreement is honest or is part of an information campaign. Even honest people wanting honest conversations cannot escape the effects of information disorder online.
- We took a closer look at Cambridge Analytica in March: https://internetnz.nz/blog/links-and-thinks-cambridge-analytica-long-read
A business model of engagement and attention
Most Internet platforms use a business model where its users can access the platform for free, and the value is made through collecting data on those users, and showing advertising.
But when your biggest revenue stream is advertising revenue, what does this mean for how you want users to engage with your platform?
Clicks, views, and the attention economy: News providers are competing for your attention in an overpopulated marketplace. This is how clickbait has become so prevalent. Platforms are incentivised to promote clickbait, as they also benefit from the engagement.
Comments, trolls and the enragement economy: Social media platforms measure engagement as a metric of success. Whether you are sharing tips about gardening with your community, or arguing with a racist relative, the platform recognizes the same merit in the interaction. Platforms and their users might encourage types of content that is easier to make, or more likely to be shared, including content that provokes outrage.
Vocal supporters of free speech promote a "marketplace of ideas", where arguments compete on equal terms.This assumes all the relevant perspectives and views get their fair share of attention, which is at odds with the algorithmic sorting that creates winners and losers in the attention sweepstakes.
- How do we create a system where verified, true information is prized over sensationalism and clickbait? How do we as audiences create demand for this?
Echo chambers and algorithms
On Twitter, liberals (blue) and conservatives (red) network more with like-minded users, with less traffic crossing the political divide from http://science.sciencemag.org/content/333/6051/1814.full
Echo chambers and filter bubbles are phrases used to describe the idea that the way we follow people and engage online means we are only exposed to ideas and opinions that reflect and reinforce our own. There is a concern that people are prone to self selecting news sources, and people or accounts to follow, that will confirm their pre-existing biases, and lead to polarisation and extremism.
- Are New Zealanders operating inside their own echo chambers?
What happens when algorithms meet filter bubbles? If a platform is incentivised to show you articles and opinions that you will respond to, will it lead to a narrowing of the types of content you see?
There are ways we can test whether this polarisation occurs in New Zealand online communities, but the work hasn't been done in New Zealand yet. The good news is that current research is looking at the question, so we'll get some more information soon.
- Do you think you see a variety of opinions online? Do you only follow people on Twitter you already agree with?
- Are you concerned that other people might be in their own echo chambers online?
Now it's your turn
We want to hear your views on the issues mentioned above, and we want your help to collect resources that can help with our research.
Join our discussion by contributing to our GitHub repo, where we have collated all of the references we have consulted in our research to date. Talk to us on Twitter (we'll be talking about one of these questions each day). You can also email us with your thoughts on email@example.com.