What Is the Internet? The Persistent Belief in Online Objectivity
Written by LaFleur
Here at LaFleur, we don’t have any illusions about what the internet is.
Facebook Controversy: Employees Manipulate the News
Last month, a flurry of controversy surrounding Facebook’s “trending” news topics erupted — and subsequently fizzled just as abruptly. The big story involved employees at Facebook manipulating which stories appeared in users’ trending feed; thus, while the stories shown were supposed to consist, by Facebook’s own admission, of “topics that have recently become popular on Facebook,” it has likely been the case that the whims of editors, content curators, and managers influenced what stories were greenlighted — and what stories got buried.
Naturally, news outlets quickly found their own angle on the story (from sexism to media monopolies), and everyone from casual users to politicians pointed the finger at Facebook for deceitfully orchestrating what was shown to users. On some level, it seems that Facebook, at the very least, misrepresented how their trending news feature worked: if a topic was not trending and was injected manually in order to start trending, then it obviously had not “recently become popular on Facebook.”
On the other hand, though, who still believes that anything on the internet is objective or neutral?
People don’t trust the internet—or do they?
Since the internet’s inception, a persistent idea has pervaded the consciousness of users: namely, that because the internet is vast, democratic, and governed by mathematical rules, only the highest quality content with the most integrity and least bias will become popular.
My suspicion is that no one actually agrees with that statement. In fact, one survey discovered that a full 98% of people distrust the internet. More specifically, a recent study reported that only 12% of people claimed to trust news they found on Facebook. So, if we already don’t trust the information we’re consuming online and on social media, why is there so much uproar when platforms and outlets are revealed as being untrustworthy?
Part of this is a major disconnect between what people think makes a source trustworthy and what actually makes a source trustworthy. For example, the top three factors leading people to trust a news source were ad placement, fast load times, and mobile-friendliness. If you asked someone what factors contribute to quality journalism and reporting, I doubt any of those 3 would even appear on the list.
A similar problem exists when users interact with search engines. When users Google something, they trust Google to provide top results that will contain quality information about their query. This should come as no surprise, since it is in Google’s best interest to provide valuable information to users based on their searches. What is surprising is how much trust people put into Google. Not only have surveys consistently found that many people trust search engines (to the tune of 89% of users), but they have also discovered that 60% of people trust Google for news even more than they trust the news outlets providing that news.
However, Google doesn’t make money by showing you news or results that best match your needs. Google makes money by showing you ads — and by having people click on those ads. Unfortunately, a great many users can’t tell the difference (despite a bright yellow “Ad” label or other markers) between paid-for search results and organic results. Depending on who you consult, either 94% of clicks on Google go to organic results or 81% go to paid ads (if you average those extremes, you have approximately 44% going to paid and 56% going to organic). Thus, the raw numbers don’t reveal whether or not users can judge between paid-for and organic results.
More telling are surveys asking what people saw when they did a Google search. For example, one survey discovered that half of respondents said they did not see any ads in their Google results. Among 18 to 24 year olds, 66% said they had not seen any ads. While Google does not display ads for some informational searches, chances are slim that 66% or even 50% of searches don’t display ads. Instead, it’s likely that a great many of the people searching simply had no idea what the difference was between a paid ad result and an organic result. Other studies bear this out when they discovered that approximately 40% of users did not know the ads on Google were paid for and, instead, believed them to be the most authoritative results.
What Is the Internet?
Obviously, the internet is a complex place, and users can be conflicted or even outright oblivious. Despite knowing not to trust what’s online, the vast majority of people still persistently believe that the results they are being shown are trustworthy. Despite knowing what defines quality content, people misguidedly believe that having a quality experience means they are consuming quality information.
As a digital marketing agency, we recognize these conflicts and paradoxes — and our responsibility to users to provide quality information that is as free from bias as possible and/or explicit about the biases within it. Content marketing — the use of relevant, valuable content to attract and retain potential clients or customers — is exploding right now, but it remains grossly misunderstood not just by consumers, but also by practitioners. Rather than considering what the user wants or needs, digital marketing firms and in-house marketing professionals all too often focus on self-aggrandizing and self-promotional content that is optimized for search engines, not optimized for the actual people who are searching for that content.
Of course, Google and other search engines have spent their entire history working to eradicate exactly those kinds of results from their system because, although they don’t make their money from displaying organic results, they do attract and retain users by consistently meeting their needs — and rewarding sites that do the same.
So, what is the internet? It’s a place where a lot of untrustworthy information resides. It’s something that many people don’t trust. It’s a tool consistently misunderstood by many of its users. But it’s also a place where honest, candid, and openhanded information can thrive, not only because it’s what people online are longing for, but because it reinforces the belief, however unfounded, that the internet can be a place for people to search for answers without worrying about being taken advantage of or being misled for someone else’s profit.
LaFleur: Leaders in Digital Marketing for Law Firms
Here at the end of a piece about bias and commercialism on the internet, I’m more than happy to reveal our own motivation for writing this content: We want to help you. Whether you need to turn your marketing around or get it off the ground, LaFleur has the knowledge and the personnel to drive leads, increase awareness, and build your firm’s brand. We take a holistic approach to marketing online, and we work with you to implement specific strategies, tools, and systems that will help you meet your goals and bring in more cases. Call us today at 888-222-1512 to take your marketing to the next level.
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