NPR Morning Edition: Study: How The Power Of Facebook And Google Affects Local Communities

September 3, 2020 Media

NPR’s Rachel Martin talks to Pat Garofalo of the American Economic Liberties Project, about the progressive group’s study indicating Facebook and Google are harming local journalism.

So Google and Facebook can make our lives easier, right? But they can also be harmful to local communities, whether that means monopolizing advertising dollars or spreading misinformation. A new study from the progressive American Economic Liberties Project exposes some of these dangers. Pat Garofalo is the lead author. He started with a story that we can all relate to – ordering takeout by starting with a Google search.

PAT GAROFALO: You enter what you’re looking for into the search box, and you’re going to get a neutral arbiter who is going to give you the best information. Maybe that best information is some Yelp reviews, maybe it’s a direct link to the closest Thai restaurant. That’s what we expect when we get onto Google.

But that’s not actually what Google does. Because the way Google makes money is through advertising, it has an incentive to keep you within Google’s ecosystem. A sort of startling stat that is in the report is that less than half of Google searches now result in a click away from Google, even if going to some other website would actually be more useful.

MARTIN: I want to ask about Facebook in particular, too, when it comes to disinformation. You say in the report this can actually end up having a real impact on local government, on local policies, right? Can you give us an example of that?

GAROFALO: Yeah, I talked a little bit about Holyoke, Mass. And it was a town that used to have a thriving local news industry. Because Facebook and Google have monopolized the digital ad market and they now take all the revenue that used to support local news, there are very few news outlets in that town. And so instead, what’s cropped up is Facebook groups that are run by folks who traffic in conspiracy and who traffic in disinformation.

And so the local officials I talked to there say that they now spend their time, instead of, you know, thinking about how to fix potholes or fund local schools, knocking down conspiracy theories that crop up on Facebook. And it’s not to say that the government’s position is necessarily always right, but there used to be a sort of neutral arbiter in the middle. And that’s just bad for local information and for local democracy.