Jan 20, 2015 · 2 minutes

Search engines are now more trusted news sources than traditional publications, social media, and other information discovery tools, according to an Edelman survey of some 27,000 people expected to be discussed at the World Economic Forum later this week.

There are two ways to interpret the survey's findings: the optimistic take is that readers are being exposed to news from a variety of sources because they skim through search pages; the pessimistic take is that search engines have too much control over information.

Getting news from more than one source is preferable to taking one publication's reporting as gospel. Publishers choose to highlight different aspects of the news, have different institutional biases, and have differing conflicts of interest. It's better to get the news from as many viewpoints as possible than to let blind faith lead to ignorance.

But allowing the news to be filtered through the algorithmic echo chamber of Google's search engine also gives the company even more control over how information makes its way from news organizations to their potential readers. As Pando's Mark Ames said in a story about Google's problem with Europe's so-called "right to be forgotten":

We’ve been conditioned for a long time now to believe that our interests in freedom of knowledge, freedom of the press, and freedom of information, are aligned with Google’s corporate interests. Google really does want every bit of information to be free, because it extracts rent from every piece of information it puts out there for us, and we need Google’s services, whether we like it or not.

The real question is, do we need, and should we accept, a all-powerful monopoly like Google with such a stranglehold over what we know, and what we think we know? This point is especially salient when one considers that Google's algorithms take someone's previous searches into account when returning new results. Someone who often searches for something on Fox News will probably see even more results from Fox while similar reporting from other news organizations will start to disappear.

Google's algorithmic appeal to consumers' existing biases creates an echo chamber from which it becomes increasingly difficult to escape. Perhaps that's why people trust the company more than traditional media organizations -- Google never challenges their views or offers evidence which doesn't support their conclusions about the world.

Maybe I was wrong to say there are two ways to read this news. There is no optimistic take on the systematic confirmation of everyone's biases, ridiculous or not, when that system leads consumers to trust actual news organizations less than a search engine.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]