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Information Politics on the Web

Author: Richard Rogers
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Review Published: February 2007

 REVIEW 1: Adrienne Massanari

Scholars are increasingly interested in the politics that influence and structure the ways in which individuals interact with the web. Frequently, this takes the form of research about instrumental uses of the web to obtain material normatively considered "political." This is most often seen in surveys distributed by organizations like the Pew Internet and American Life Project. These typically focus on individual self-reports in which participants note the frequency with which they go online to research politics; the ways in which they interact with others online to talk about politics (through applications such as e-mail, IM, and social-networking sites like MySpace and Friendster); and the most frequent ways they obtain political information online (see, for example, Rainie, Cornfield, & Horrigan, 2005). While delving into the instrumental ways in which individuals' political behavior is shaped and/or influenced by their web behavior, these surveys assume that a diverse set of content can be obtained through a simple web search.

This attitude denies an important component of the web user's experience: the institutional and technical politics that structure the diversity of materials an individual can find online. Popular commercial search engines suggest that their sites return the most "authoritative" results, and yet, they heavily guard the software algorithms that make these result sets possible, citing the competitive advantage they provide. As academics working within the socio-technical tradition often suggest, however, technological artifacts are not immune from politics. Scholars like Bruno Latour (Callon & Latour, 1981; 1988; 1992; 1993) have long argued that technologies reflect the culture from whence they came; more recently, researchers have investigated how choices made within the design process become embedded in the final product (Spinuzzi, 2003).

Without the ability to examine the underlying assumptions search companies use to produce their results, end-users are left with no choice but to accept that the results returned for a search for, say, "Medicare" are the most authoritative and most reliable -- in other words, the best possible. But who decides what the "best" should look like in this case? As Google Hacks (Dornfest, Bausch, & Calishain, 2006) suggests, the "best" result set often favors the most popular, the most linked, and the most "timely" sites. However, as Hindman and his coauthors (Hindman, Tsioutsiouliklis, & Johnson, 2003) note, this seemingly reasonable choice for defining "authority" online has vast political consequences, as it restricts the breadth and depth of the most controversial issues. Do a search for "global warming" on Google, for example, and the first link that appears is the EPA Global Warming site. The second link is globalwarming.org, a site created by the "Cooler Heads Coalition" that claims global warming "doomsayers" are perpetuating myths and generally freaking out about nothing.

Richard Rogers' Information Politics on the Web tackles such issues directly. Calling his work an "expose on the politics of information devices on the Web" (1), Rogers, Head of New Media at the University of Amsterdam and Director of the Govcom.org Foundation, works from the simple and seldomly interrogated premise that information on the Web competes for individual attention, especially since many individuals use search engines as their primary mode of navigating the Web. He distinguishes two forms of information politics at play online: front-end, which governmental and private organizations practice through certain restrictions they place on the type of dialogue that individuals can engage in on their Web sites; and back-end, which occurs mainly in the seemingly impenetrable space of search engine algorithms and shady payola deals where sites receive prominent rankings by paying search engines producers. The first chapter of Information Politics devotes considerable time providing useful examples that illustrate and delineate practices falling into these two categories, and provides information about several tools his group (www.govcom.org) developed to interrogate this complex information space: the lay decision support system, the issue barometer, the Web issue index, and the election issues tracker. Rogers presents the findings of using these tools to interrogate certain social/political issues, like the discourse surrounding Viagra use, genetically modified foods, and the coverage of globalization after the G8 conference in Genoa. Each tool and issue is outlined in chapters 2-5 in the book. Rogers does a fine job of detailing the methodological assumptions he and his team makes when creating tools like the Web issue tracker (and these are also included on the Web site). For this reason alone, the book provides a useful narrative of the way social science research is conducted behind closed doors.

The foundational question underlying Rogers' experiments with informational politics is the very nature of the Web as an information medium. He writes:
    The information politics ... concern a much larger question about the medium ... What's the Web for or what could it be made to be for? Should it be made to continue to principally flatten hierarchies of information, itself a highly info-political move? Should it be made to expose, put on display informational politics? Or, contrarily, should we make the Web compete with press and broadcast media -- the very opposite, from an information politics point of view, of convergence? Should it build hierarchies in line with typically mediated versions of events ... or should it consciously do otherwise? (22)
This is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Rogers' work -- he directly questions the ontological underpinnings of the Web and suggests that researchers and concerned citizens can directly influence the shape of discourse online. It is an interesting and important premise, as it exposes the "black box" (to use Latour's term), and illustrates the Web for what it is: a constructed reality. Rogers is quick to note that today's search engines often restrict the debate by presenting "official" viewpoints at the top of their search results -- he suggests that tools like those produced by govcom.org can remedy (or at least expose) such problems. Rogers clearly views access to greater amounts of diverse perspectives on social and political issues as being crucial to democratic discourse.

One of the unique aspects of this work is its ability to trace how debates in cyberspace transverse national boundaries. Increasingly, the global nature of the Web influences how debates play out in the public sphere -- blurring the lines between global and local interests. Rogers offers an excellent case study of how social debates specifically affecting one nation may be managed by outsiders. In Chapter 3, he highlights the "de-territorialization" of the food safety debate during 2001 in the Netherlands, by examining links between interested parties (NGOs, press, and other organizations), concluding that the actual debate occurred at the supranational (EU/WTO level), rather than national level. For social scientists and activists alike, these sorts of findings are critical, as they suggest the increasing need for a local voice to remain prominent in such debates. Just how one would provide equal access to all actors within the network when the Web is largely controlled by commercial interests like Google and Microsoft, however, remains a larger and more difficult question.

Rogers does an excellent job of highlighting some of the implicit assumptions we make about the nature of the Web, and offers concrete tools to help researchers and others deconstruct online discourse. With its argument that the Web truly embodies its promise to be a "collision space" where official and unofficial accounts meet and compete, Information Politics on the Web is an important addition to work within the fields of information science, communication, political science, and new media studies.

Callon, M., & Latour, B. (1981). Unscrewing the big Leviathan: How actors macro-structure reality and how sociologists help them do it. In K. D. Knorr Cetina & A. Cicourel (Eds.), Advances in social theory and methodology: Towards an integration of micro and macro sociologies (pp. 276-303). London: Routledge.

Dornfest, R., Bausch, P., & Calishain, T. (2006). Google hacks: 100 industrial-strength tips & tricks (3rd ed.). Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media.

Hindman, M., Tsioutsiouliklis, K., & Johnson, J. A. (2003, July 28). "Googlearchy": How a few heavily-linked sites dominate politics on the Web. Retrieved September 28, 2006.

Latour, B. (1988). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping technology/building society (pp. 225-257). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern (C. Porter, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rainie, L., Cornfield, M., & Horrigan, J. (2005, March 6). The Internet and Campaign 2004. Retrieved September 25, 2006.

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Adrienne Massanari:
Adrienne Massanari is the co-editor (with David Silver) of Critical Cyberculture Studies. She is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, and her dissertation concerns the discursive construction of the information architecture field. Adrienne blogs at www.hegemonyrules.net.  <alm2@u.washington.edu>

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