Media Bias – Who Are the Victims?

“Conservatives,” or more accurately Trumpist sycophants, complain a lot about “media bias,” claiming they are being “censored” and otherwise discriminated against. They do this even though FOX “News,” OAN, Newsmax, Breitbart and others devote virtually their entire waking moments to spewing false and/or distorted information about elections, COVID-19 and other important public subjects, basically hewing to the Donald Trump fantasy line of the day.

A few days ago I was hunting online to determine how to watch President Biden’s speech regarding the new federal COVID—19 policy. I turned to Safari, the primary Mac search engine (I prefer Google but there are indications that it does not work well with the latest Apple OS) [Note for the record my sophisticated use of computer terminology – search engine, OS – some days I amaze myself]

I typed “time of Biden’s speech today.” And this is what I got.

I’m pretty sure this does not happen by random accident. I searched for specific news about President Biden and got a bunch of right-wing blather thrown in my face by Yahoo.

My curiosity piqued by this unexpected outcome, I did some digging. I turned to … search engines. Turns out Yahoo is owned by Verizon Communications. But wait, Yahoo is actually Microsoft’s Bing search engine. The plot thickens. Already, I know more about this than I think I want to know. But I plowed ahead.

I “learned” that Google, the search engine associated with the Chrome search engine, with a market share of 92+%, is bigger than all the other search engines combined. https://bit.ly/3C00spd Second in size is … Bing, with 8% share. The site cited above notes, “Unlike Google, Bing’s homepage always features a stunning image and news stories.” Hhmh … I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that photos of Dan Bongino and Marsha Blackburn are “stunning” except in the sense of “mind numbing.”

That aside, we must remember that “Google also powers other search engines – including Ask, which is the sixthlargest search engine in the world” and that Yahoo!’s search engine is really Bing and that Yahoo, as search engine, is the fourth largest search engine in the world. After that, the others listed on the ranking site are mostly country-specific with names like Baidu, Yandex, DuckDuckGo, Naver, Seznam, Ecosia (Bing again) and AOL (hahahahaha -AOL, yes, really, AOL).

ll this brings to mind the old Abbott & Costello routine, Who’s on First,” which as a very young child I thought was pretty funny. It now has its own Wikipedia page, https://bit.ly/2V7PWM2, and … well, enough about that. As applied to search engines, the Who’s on First is not very funny.

In the case of search engines, the answer seems to be Google but it’s hard to know who is actually providing you with search information at any one time. In the end, I suspect the real answer is that all the information you get from Internet searches is controlled by three or four people, about whom little is known except by doing Internet searches they control. You see the problem.

Frankly, madam, I don’t give much of a damn about these people. What I care about is the possibility that, contrary to what the Trumpists are claiming, the truth, yet again, is the opposite – that a nefarious process is under way in which I ask for information about the President of the United States and get promotional garbage about/from right-wing fools.

We are all, mostly, now aware of some of the principles of behavioral economics that emphasize how the order and manner of information presentation can control what we think. At the least, the Yahoo response to my query created cognitive dissonance when I realized what had happened (it might be worse if this occurred without my recognizing it!). Cognitive dissonance is explained this way by the folks at Psychology Today:

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people are averse to inconsistencies within their own minds. It offers one explanation for why people sometimes make an effort to adjust their thinking when their own thoughts, words, or behaviors seem to clash with each other.

When one learns new information that challenges a deeply held belief, for example, or acts in a way that seems to undercut a favorable self-image, that person may feel motivated to somehow resolve the negative feeling that results—to restore cognitive consonance. Though a person may not always resolve cognitive dissonance, the response to it may range from ignoring the source of it to changing one’s beliefs or behavior to eliminate the conflict. [https://bit.ly/3C0QeVK]

Given that, for example, Bing reportedly gets 1.3 billion visits per month, you wouldn’t have to succeed at altering thinking patterns of a large share to affect a huge number of people.

To be clear, I am not advocating content control, which would create a multitude of practical and legal problems. But if my experience with my Biden speech search is a frequent occurrence, there is cause for (1) alarm and (2) some form of investigation/exposure, including ultimately some form of mandatory disclosure/warnings about the practices being used to deliver information. Yes, yes, I get that there are First Amendment issues there too, but it is unclear to me whether the issue is being examined outside the near-hysterical drumbeat of right-wing whining about censorship (for which little to no evidence appears to exist).

The termination of Donald Trump’s access to Twitter and Facebook was based upon blatant and repeated violations of the Terms of Service. Trump’s posts involved demonstrable lies and misinformation about matters of vital public importance. He had many opportunities to stop but, if anything, he escalated his misconduct with his continuing false claims about election fraud.

The major Internet platforms are, in my opinion, making a huge mistake with their cavalier approach to Terms of Service and enforcement. I understand that at their scale of operations, there is no simple solution. But to understand what is being done, a process of analysis of how the systems could be improved must begin, leading ultimately to public pressure for positive change. This is an essential process for the preservation of democracy in this country. Just imagine what would happen if control of one of these behemoths were to fall into the wrong hands. Indeed, it may have already happened.

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