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Why The ‘Google Trends’ Update Matters For Free Speech

Is evaluating the web’s obsessions becoming a tool for mind rape?  Will Free Speech Ever Be Free?

Google Trends, the analytics tool which has helped journalists to measure how popular search terms are, has been updated to show how a search term’s popularity rises and falls in real-time. Much like the trending topics listed on the sidebars of Facebook and Twitter, they fluctuate minute-by-minute, revealing what people are searching for, as they search, Wired reported.

Ever since I became acquainted with it several years ago, Google Trends has shaped what I’ve covered as a journalist. The push for content that responds better to trending searches has pushed myself, and others in the news media, to work in-synch with popular demand. Will this relationship help to break away from groupthink by democratizing the media, or worsen it by perpetuating a spiral of silence?

The Rise of SEO in the Newsroom

With the introduction of Google Trends in 2012, boosting SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, of one’s content became easier, allowing news sites to post stories that cater to the search habits of its users. While I was working as a reporter for a web-based news site several years ago, new SEO policies were implemented, which made writers responsible for how easy their content was to search for online. While this didn’t change the content of the site overnight, it certainly shaped which stories I choose to write about, and how I wrote them.

No, the news doesn’t entirely revolve around trending searches. But the media’s use of tools that analyze what people are interested in, minute-by-minute, certainly contrasts with the agenda-setting powers of the 20th century news media. The journalists of yesteryear got to determine what issues were important, and how important they were, based on what they covered, and how much they covered it. At least, that’s that some people theorized, namely Walter Lippmann in his book, Public Opinion, which was published in 1922.

Will the “spiral of silence” theory become a reality in the real-time world?

Perhaps the rise of SEO, powered by the search queries of the public, will help to democratize the news media, as it takes away the monopoly of influence that Hollywood and other media elitists have enjoyed for the past century. Now, the public determines the issues and ideas that are important, while the news media reacts to it, or so it seems.

But in our increasingly social world, we can see the mob-like tendencies of Facebook users, who in their quest for social justice, act completely berserk, and raise the salience level beyond where it probably ought to be. One such example was when ESPN’s Britt McHenry chewed out a tow-truck company employee after they towed her car, several months ago. Her tirade was national news for several days, during which, basically everyone called for her termination from ESPN overnight. It makes me wonder how much attention her tantrum received was because her name made such a clickable headline?

In our race to become more connected with one another, we have really created a space where conformity and silence are the price to pay, or risk being alienated by a mob of naysayers. The opinions that become “correct” are determined by the volume tendencies of opinion holders. Those who disagree quietly, lose the debate, thus enabling the screamers to shout louder, pushing the dissenters into a “spiral of silence.”

In the age of hot-takes and the socially-driven news cycle, it seems that he who yells the loudest, or gets the most Google search queries, wins. If the media becomes a function that merely lends a megaphone to the ideas that are being shouted the loudest, who speaks up for the silent ones?

Is The Obsession With Our Web Obsessions Feeding The Frenzy?

In a piece entitled “How To Escape The Age of Mass Delusion” my colleague Stella Morabito noted the rise of group think in America, resulting in angry mobs, ready to viciously attack:

“Even benign reminders of the First Amendment—embodied in Religious Freedom Restoration Acts—are quickly dispatched by mob hysteria… Yet it feels like we’ve awakened to an ambush. A lot of Americans watched in shock while cultish mobs suddenly attacked the RFRA that Pence initially defended. But the groundwork for mass hysteria like this was stealthily laid for decades, and the minefields sown.”

Perhaps we’re fueling this rapidly paced group think that Morabito describes by obsessing over trending topics. In giving people exactly what they’re looking for, maybe we’ve enabled this social conditioning to spread faster.

But fortunately, agenda-setters aren’t the only ones with access to tools like Google Trends. Perhaps free thinkers will be emboldened to share their dissenting opinions by responding to the public thirst on a trending topic in real-time simultaneously freeing free speech.

Source:  The Federalist