Saturday, 19 May 2018

When news isn't news

Modern news apps aren’t as ground-breaking as Google and Apple might think

At I/O 2018, Google announced they are relaunching their news app so it brings users a customised feed of stories based on their interests and what they've previously read. In short, this is Google's take on Apple News. These news apps, which are basically glorified RSS feeds, are well-intentioned however ultimately problematic. Technology promised to eliminate some of the issues associated with old media, however I fear that they've only made them worse.

The main issue is that letting an algorithm pick news for you based on interests you've told it and your reading history is not a good way to digest news. Google has proved their algorithms for generating content don't really work – as demonstrated by the YouTube Trending page where fake news, violent videos, and copyrighted material often surfaces to the top. To be fair, this isn't a problem limited to Google. Facebook makes a hash of providing news too. They spent the whole of 2016 doing nothing about the unchecked saturation of fake news circulating around their platform.

Secondly, displaying stories based on previous reads does not mean they are the pieces you should be digesting. Google says, through “reinforced learning,” the app will learn what topics and publishers you like. Apparently "the more you use it, the better it gets." However most people are drawn in by clickbait and non-stories with glorified thumbnails. Fall for them three or four times and presumably this means Google will start thinking that you have an appetite for pointless listicles and trivial news, so you will be shown more.

Thankfully, there is a simple fix to these problems: editors.

Call me old fashioned but what is wrong with allowing actual human beings to decide what are the most important issues of the day and giving stories some gravitas by putting them in the public eye? This would serve readers better too as it would diversify the topics that appear in the feed.

The obvious opposition to this idea is the fact that editors have biases. Of course they do. But, as do algorithms. It has been proved numerous times over the past decade that algorithms reflect the people who write them so they're not truly impartial either. At least with a group of editors, there is someone to hold accountable if you don't think the news is neutral.

In a society where there is now a large need for views to be challenged and news not to simply reinforce a person’s 'confirmation bias', Google News is doing little to address the challenges. In an ideal world, Coffee House blogs from The Spectator should be put in front of liberals and ‘Comment is Free’ think-pieces from The Guardian should be exposed to conservatives. Instead, it would appear that Google is keener to associate their news efforts with buzzwords like 'machine learning' and 'AI' in order to satisfy investors - rather than creating an information tool that would benefit society.

This is nothing new though. It's unlikely that someone on the political left would go out and buy The Daily Mail or someone on the right The Observer. However, technology has the ability to bring people more balanced news and to expose people to analysis that they might not agree with. Moreover, the companies which are providing platforms for news (Google, Apple and Facebook) have a duty not just to host the content but to prioritise the content which is actually factually correct. Simple as it may sound, this is something an algorithm currently struggles to do.

In Google's defence, they do try and partly address this problem. The news app has a tab called 'Headlines' which Google claims will help readers "understand the full story." On Stage at I/O, Trystan Upstill said, "Today, it takes a lot of work a lot of work to broaden your point of view and understand a story in depth. With Google News we set out to make that effortless." Cut through the waffle and fundamentally this is just a feed of top stories from a wide variety of trusted sources.

Inside of this, they’ve created a 'Full Coverage' feature which will allow users to see how a story is being covered from a variety of sources - including fact checking sites. Google says that everyone will see the same content in Full Coverage. "It’s an unfiltered view of events from a range of trusted news sources."

So why not build the whole app with this foundation, rather than hiding it in a niche corner of the app? When you open the app, you still land on the 'For You' tab which serves you a plate of sources you like the taste of.

Although Google – and others – have the capacity to incite positive change to the media landscape and democratise information to provide the world with more balanced news, Google News has the same problems as old news media, but in a modern format and with “light, easy, fast, and fun design choices.” Thanks for nothing, Google.