A favorite refrain of media observers is to extol the Internet's ability to democratize information delivery.The idea is that do-it-yourself information sites on the Web, such as blogs, YouTube, MySpace, and Wikipedia, will break the arbitrary power of the "media elite" to decide what qualifies as news. It is argued that these sites have the virtue of eliminating the filter of potentially politicized and corporately beholden media gatekeepers.
However, the task of separating the new and important from the redundant and useless requires critical thinking and expansive knowledge. For this, the media elite are irreplaceable. Although recent history has shown that even the most hallowed news agencies are capable of severe oversights, the alternative is madness.
The democratizers argue that because all information can't be separated from the prejudices of authors and editors, it's best to treat all sources equally and let the collective wisdom of news consumers sort it out. In other words, let people decide. Indeed, many of the key information portals on the Internet, such as YouTube and Yahoo News, display information, at least partly, based on popularity. Even newspapers such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe, have online tables listing their most popular news stories.
The ease in which this popularity process can be compromised was illustrated by a May 15 article in The Wall Street Journal titled "Web Sites' Lists of 'Most Viewed' Too Easy to Game?"
The article by Internet and technology reporter Kevin Delaney describes a variety of new for-profit services that can automatically create page views for online content and, in so doing, give greater visibility for a story based on phantom popularity. And these services do not just boost the quantity of which content is apparently viewed, but can provide bogus reviews of quality. In so doing, videos or stories can have their "ratings" magically boosted by cleverly configured spyware programs that game the system.
As an example, the Journal article cites an Op-Ed piece in the Globe on the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan that had its online popularity boosted by an outside technology firm. A spokesman for the policy/humanitarian group that wrote the piece was quoted on the efficacy of the technique, which exposed many more readers to the tragedy in Darfur.
However, the underlying technique that boosted the Darfur piece could just as easily be applied to such banal topics as toothpaste and, more significantly, to government or corporate propaganda.
It is only natural that these technologies have been developed, and it is only natural that many communications firms may be considering their use as the latest tool in the media relations arsenal. And although many in our profession may consider this to be dirty pool, you can't blame technologists or publicists for trying to find an edge.
As a counterbalance, we need experienced and intelligent journalists. In theory at least, an editor can't be gamed as easily as a search engine. As a result, the responsibilities currently thrust upon the media have taken on an even greater weight. Let's hope they can rise to the challenge.
Andrew Schiff is VP at MacMillan Communications in New York.