Are Apple and Facebook bad for democracy?

Apple and Facebook are asserting themselves as gatekeepers of necessary information to the public. Can we trust them?

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Yet the claimed purpose of Metadata+ -- to use smartphones and an app to get people to care about drone strikes (which are paid for with the taxes of would-be users of said app) -- is considered too objectionable to allow.

On what basis can Apple claim that this knowledge is "objectionable," especially given the fact that it would have been downloaded and used by people specifically seeking out that information?

It's also worth pointing out that the App Store allows games that involve the role-playing fantasy of acting as a drone operator and killing people.

Apple recently launched its News app along with iOS 9. So far, the company isn't censoring stories in the News app like it currently censors apps in the App Store.

Facebook Instant Articles

Facebook recently launched an offering to news publishers called Facebook Instant Articles. The system preloads news stories on Facebook's mobile app for participating and invited publishers, rendering stories as much as 10 times faster when users tap to read a story, according to Facebook.

fb instant articles 1 Facebook

Facebook Instant Articles.

The feature is still in test mode, involving just a handful of publishers and 12.5% of iPhone owners who use Facebook's app.

Instant Articles is attractive to publishers, which are losing readers because of time spent on Facebook. (If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.) It's attractive also because Facebook lets publishers keep all the revenue from the ads they sell, plus 70% of the revenue from ads that Facebook sells against those articles.

Facebook is already used as a news source by about 63% of users, and Instant Articles could dramatically raise that percentage and increase the number of people who get their news exclusively from Facebook.

Google and Twitter are so freaked out about Instant Articles stealing all the news eyeballs that on Wednesday they'll be launching an open-source alternative -- one that has no apparent monetary benefit to either party. (You can tell companies are scared when they partner with rivals to unite against a common third rival.)

Facebook Instant Articles looks to be an extremely effective tactic for moving news reading on smartphones from news apps to Facebook itself. And it threatens to make surfing Facebook the way a majority of voters get their political news.

The implication of this trend is that more news becomes subject to Facebook's secret algorithms, which are constantly optimized to serve Facebook's interests.

Let me say that another way: People vote based on what they know. People know what they read or watch in the news. And what people read or watch is controlled by Facebook's algorithms. Therefore, Facebook's secret algorithms determine the outcome of elections.

OK, that's an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

As with all its content, Facebook will display the news that people sign up for to only a tiny minority of those users. Its criteria for selecting which stories to deliver to which News Feeds is unknown.

Once stories are delivered, the degree of "engagement" that they generate will determine whether they die an early social death or go wildly viral -- and potentially have a huge influence. So, of course, the sensational will be seen and re-seen by everyone, and the important news and information vital for an informed democracy may go largely unseen.

These initiatives from Apple and Facebook won't have much of an impact on the public in general. They do, however, raise the question of whether we can trust the new gatekeepers of information flowing to the public -- information that is vital to our democracy.

In general, Apple's and Facebook's criteria for choosing what information the public gets seem arbitrary at best and contrary to the interests of an informed democracy at worst.

The old gatekeepers -- the editors and producers of political news who used to decide what the public would learn about -- had devoted their careers to keeping the democracy informed.

The new gatekeepers just want you to go shopping.

Something to think about.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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