The World Cup has come and gone, but one of the most interesting tech stories related to the tournament lingers on. After the German team delivered a nearly unprecedented 7-1 trouncing of host-team Brazil, NPR reported on Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) decision to avoid the story in its Trends feed. This news was then picked up by Engadget, which ran a story that Google later addressed as misleading. Speculation about the company's rationale for choosing to deemphasize certain stories comes on the heels of public outcry over Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) using its members as subjects in emotional tests. Is Google employing similar emotionally manipulative practices? What would such a move say about the Internet giant?
Where is the outrage over Google's selective World Cup coverage?
Relative to the news about Facebook's experimentation exploits, Google's World Cup story has kicked up little fervor. This is easily explained by the differing natures of the two platforms. Google Trends is mostly a documentation of trending searches, with internally written synopses and coverage, whereas Facebook delivers user-generated content among members of an online social network. Although Google isn't selectively feeding its users with photos, videos, and written content from acquaintances, that doesn't mean that the company is acting in a way that's inherently less emotionally manipulative.
Google isn't your average 16-year-old
Google's response to an Engadget article on its potentially manipulative Trends coverage offers an interesting insight on the nature of the platform. In a written response to the tech website's article, Google stated:
Our social channels exist to share interesting and relevant information to the people who want to hear from us. Unlike your average 16-year-old, we don't share every single thing we might have to say.
While the implicit slight at a demographic that is incredibly influential in shaping social media trends is worth discussing in its own right, even more interesting is the suggestion that Germany's trouncing of Brazil at the World Cup would not be interesting or relevant to people following Google Trends.
To be sure, the 7-1 shellacking and the resulting emotions of shame and embarrassment in Brazil must be broadly considered among the most captivating stories to come out of the tournament. So, of course Google is entitled to display whatever content it wishes on its Trends platform, but to suggest that not featuring arguably the biggest story of the day -- and perhaps World Cup 2014 -- is a matter of providing "interesting and relevant information" and not one of very strategic omission appears highly disingenuous.
Positivity rules on social media
Research has shown that positive stories tend to generate more social media engagement than negative ones. One Google copywriter explained the decision not to feature Brazilian searches on Trends, stating that the terms were "just too negative." With Google playing such a large role in the modern flow of information, the company may see itself as having an increasing interest in promoting stable societies.
The results of the Brazil-Germany game triggered riots in the host country, and Brazil's high levels of income disparity and violent crime meant that the situation could have escalated quickly. That's not to suggest that it was Google that prevented such a scenario from occurring, but the Internet giant is no longer just providing a relatively free flow of content and information. It's also involved in actively shaping what the world sees and how it reacts, and the myriad of influences that affect the company's decisions are worthy of consideration.
Bias may be inextricable from the business of news
As publicly traded companies, Internet powerhouses like Google and Facebook would appear to have clear incentives for shaping the content that their users are exposed to. This places certain elements of their respective businesses more in line with television news shows than free-flowing content aggregators. To get an idea of what this might mean, think back to the very beginning of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. While the inception of the movement was almost undeniably one of the most important stories of the time, its early days received relatively little media focus.
With no intention of lending credence to the general Occupy ideology or its application, companies like Comcast and News Corporation had obvious incentives not to promote groups that sought to preach the alleged evils of stock markets and America's broader corporate structure. The protests eventually rose to media prominence, but the argument can be made that the general timeline of coverage and press narratives were favorable to the big companies behind the news.
They who write history control the future
Stories about large corporations shaping the flow of information tend to stir up a lot of emotional reaction and concerns about dystopian applications, but it's worth remembering that this is business as usual, and mostly unavoidable given the structure of modern communications. The real takeaway is the rising power that companies like Google and Facebook have to shape the perceptions of their users in ways that benefit their respective goals.
As the two Internet powerhouses are increasingly involved in influencing user experiences, instances of public outcry about their chosen methods will only become more common. What role these companies should play in shaping public sentiment is a matter worthy of discussion, but the fact that Google and Facebook have the ability to impact what the world sees and experiences should be greatly appealing to investors.