What the Amazon fire story tells us about our failing media literacy

26 Aug 2019

Image: © terovesalainen/Stock.adobe.com

You didn’t miss the Amazon fire story because online media platforms are broken. You missed it because they work exactly as they should, writes Elaine Burke.

Where were you when you first heard of the fires sweeping across the Amazon rainforest? I was watching RTÉ News at home last Wednesday night. And, yes, I was a bit unnerved that this was the first I had heard of a major global crisis that had been happening for a number of weeks. But did I blame RTÉ for my lack of knowledge on the matter? Google? The internet? Of course not.

This is not the first major news story where people have complained that it was not hitting the mainstream media soon enough for audiences worldwide. Earlier this year, the story of internet outages amid political protests in Sudan received the same complaint.

Again, I’m sure I happened upon that story later than its breaking point. The first thing I then did was turn to Google and find stories from various news sources detailing the issue – a common step for anyone searching for news in the digital age. In the case of the Amazon fire, however, a quirk of concurrence saw one user tweet search results showing no news of the forest fire, only pages selling e-commerce giant Amazon’s Fire range of devices.

Outrageous. I mean, you would almost be led to believe that Google is not an impartial information dispensary but actually a revenue-generating tool for e-commerce. Hmmm.

The fact is that the platforms we currently use to access the majority of our media are not agnostic. Putting Google in an old-timey context, think of the search results page as your newspaper arriving on your doorstep after being cut into pieces and patched back together to put the stories the delivery kid wanted you to see first on top. The delivery kid who also happens to be pocketing cash from certain local businesses to show you their stories first. The delivery kid who becomes so powerful that the content producers have to write and format stories just the way this one kid likes them, otherwise they might end up in the wastepaper basket, never to darken a doorstep again.

To get mad at Google for not delivering the results you want is to misunderstand the tool you are using. Google’s search engine – nay, it’s whole business – is practically entirely supported by advertising revenue. Driving users to pages that make money serves this operational necessity. Any SEO expert will tell you that ‘Amazon Fire’ is a hot search term for retailers who will have spent years up to now jostling (and paying) for good results positioning on that keyword, rainforest blaze or no rainforest blaze.

News of the Amazon rainforest fire, the Sudan internet outage and countless other ‘ignored’ stories was there if you knew where to look and how to look. Recognising how all this works is the new media literacy we need.

How we interpret the delivery of our media through profit-minded platforms is just as important as how we consider the source itself. The ones paying for promotion are the real customers, not us freeloaders looking for whatever we want online on demand and at no cost. This precise engineering of our choices under the guise of agnostic information-sorting is the price we pay.

Even when platforms appear to be doing well at curating a better, more trustworthy media flow, there are hidden strategies telling a different story.

Twitter got a lot of kudos last week for taking down 200,000 bots suspected to have been part of a Chinese government influence campaign trying to swing the narrative of the Hong Kong protests. The platform will also no longer accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities. At the same time, however, this private business has invested in training public officials and politicians in China in how to make the most of Twitter, as it does with such influencers worldwide.

No one wants to be the last to hear that ‘the lungs of the earth’ are being ravaged by fire or that an entire country has been cut off from the internet. Many of us are saturated in media day in and day out and, in that context, yes, it can seem surprising that any major news stories could ever pass you by.

However, the modern media landscape is far from the linear broadcast model of old. Online media consumers in particular have countless opportunities to curate the streams that come by them, but how often do we review our own settings? More and more, this curation is decided for you by algorithms guessing at your interests based on a data-driven profile. New privacy rules give back some power in how those content suggestions are generated, but are we using them?

You can’t sit passively in a bubble of your own creation – intentionally or not – and expect something you never before expressed an interest in to suddenly break through the noise that is online media streams.

This is not quite the golden age of free information at your fingertips. This is an age where you are plugged into a network of companies paying to focus your attention on something that will pay them. If this distracts you from the news of the world, that’s because it’s meant to.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.