Understanding Networked Information

Traditional ways of conveying information – through books, journals, newspapers, broadcast news,  film, and even conversations among friends – have been undergoing enormous changes. Technology platforms developed in the past twenty years have changed how people find, share, and create information. This not only affects what information is available, it has shaken up the business models and cultures around information.

Google was not the first internet search engine, but after its founding in 1998 it quickly dominated the market because of its ability to crawl the web quickly and efficiently and because its page rank algorithm provided better relevance ranking than its competitors at the time. Likewise, Facebook (founded in 2004) was not the first social network, but it grew fast and now claims over two billion active users. Both companies have expanded their reach through acquisition of other companies and growth into new areas. Google invested in mobile phone technologies, artificial intelligence, and purchased YouTube. Facebook bought Instagram, Oculus VR, and WhatsApp, a popular messaging service. Both companies have joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and two Chinese giants, Tencent and Alibaba, on the list of the top ten public corporations by market capitalization. It’s a sign of their power that seven of the top ten are tech companies.

In the meantime, the way news is produced and shared has changed dramatically. Newspapers (the “first draft of history”) have lost subscribers and reporters. Newsrooms employ half the reporters they did in the 1990s, while a number of new digital startups have been created, many of them partisan, some of them satirical, some downright fraudulent. Network news and cable news make segments available on YouTube and news is largely encountered on phone apps and social media. A significant percentage of the advertising revenue news organizations rely on goes to the platforms people increasingly use to discover news – platforms like Google, Facebook, Apple News, and YouTube, companies that don’t produce news but benefit from digital advertising dollars that news producers generate. Books continue to be published in print even as Amazon dominates the e-book and audiobook markets, thanks to acquiring the companies that initially developed them. Even scientific and scholarly journals are going through profound changes. Once only available on paper to those who subscribed, journal production went digital, throwing up paywalls to protect profitable subscriptions. New open access publishing models are under development, but in the meantime impatient activists have launched sites where millions of papers are uploaded in violation of copyright, arguing the prevailing publishing model inhibits sharing knowledge.

As we will see, it is not only easy for disinformation and propaganda to be created and spread through information networks, it is financially rewarding for creators and for the networks themselves. It also has profound political implications. The next chapters will cover practical ways to check facts and avoid spreading bad information. Later, we will explore how these networks function and examine the social and ethical problems they pose.

 

 

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Clickbait, Bias, and Propaganda in Information Networks by Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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