Google is, and should be, under a microscope.

Most people agree on this, from President Donald Trump to Senator Amy Klobuchar.

The search engine has tremendous power in controlling the information we consume, and mistrust in how it’s used is a unifier for those concerned about a free-thinking world.

Google’s algorithm is especially, and unnecessarily, punitive to local news outlets, which play a major role in preserving the global information flow.

We in the business have known this for some time, but a recent Washington Post study put an exclamation point on it.

Nature Human Behaviour conducted an audit of search results in different U.S. counties. Time and time again, Google picked well-funded national outlets to show, pushing local sources to the back of the proverbial internet line.

This, in a world where most people click on the first or second result and rarely (mostly never) leafing through second or third pages, leaves searchers with woefully deficient sources of information.

This makes a big difference both in the information quality, and currently, in the chances of the information source’s survival.

The picture was grim even before the pandemic, with the Pew Center reporting U.S. newspaper staffs cleaved in half since 2008 — and FOIA requests by the same harrowing number — and Columbia Journalism review showing 2,100 local print outlets gone in the five years between 2005 and 2010.

We obviously have a horse in this race, but all of us are running in it because you are the product they are selling.

Google and social media titans, via their algorithms, make values judgments that promote or suppress information we receive. Each decision those algorithms make is an act of publishing. And if platforms are publishers, at the very least they should surrender Section 230 protections — those are the guards that prevent tech companies from being held responsible for what they publish. Little publishers like the Record-Eagle and large publishers like the New York Times aren’t afforded such protections. We don’t believe platform publishers should be protected either.

Some argue (accurately) that Google is a monopoly that has unfairly acquired too much power. If Ma Bell and Standard Oil was broken up then perhaps Google is a subject for such discussions.

Because the loss our communities are facing is immense.

“Scholars find that local news organizations strengthen democracy by boosting local involvement in cities and towns, helping to hold officials accountable, and reducing citizens’ partisan polarization,” write Sean Fischer, Kokil Jaidka and Yphtach Lelkes in WaPo.

Filling the void is a network of deceptive and manipulative media, they add.

And, no matter how smart we think we are, no one is immune from this. Good propaganda is virtually unrecognizable, and works incrementally, using the illusion of choice and agency to disguise it.

Which brings us to social media. WaPo finds we know even less about the hows and whys of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook information selection — at the same time that people are relying on it even more. These platforms are selecting sources, and determining understanding, knowledge and ultimately decisions.

Suppressing local media is at the heart of the problem, and is ultimately short-sighted even for the big media benefiting from the algorithms, and the platform itself.

Local journalism is the information plankton in the media food web. Once it’s gone, it’s only a matter of time before the big fish die, too.

But we can do something. We can urge our leaders to keep Google and social media platforms in the hot seat, and to keep original sources intact and easy to find.

In September, three U.S. senators put forth the Future of Local News Commission Act to establish a commission to examine the spread of local news deserts (communities with no local news source). This is wise, but we need to urge our leaders to support it. We know well that government accountability is often given lip service by both parties, but tends to shrivel up short of the finish line (see Michigan FOIA record).

Skopos Labs gives the bill a current 1 percent chance of being enacted, but there’s no reason the conversation can’t continue into the new year. It must. Platforms play an enormous role in the suppression of local news organizations, and consequently local news.

This is the time to put an end to information suppression. We need to keep this issue in the limelight, and consider this the first in a series of editorial on the state of local news and the play between platforms.

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