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Wayne State University

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Oct 30 / Cristy Danford

Information Dissemination in E-Government Technologies: The Dark Side

Writted by Isidoro Alastra

E-Government is expanding with the proliferation of cloud based software and platforms. As more citizens become engaged in e-government it is important to recognize the potential for biases in such technologies. The integrity of e-government web sites can be questioned by looking at how information is disseminated on web sites and who invests in the development of the web sites. Before looking at this there needs to be a way to measure the quality of information.

Papadomichelaki and Mentzas (2012) describe how to analyze the quality of information on e-government web sites in their e-government analysis instrument: “As far as the quality of information is concerned characteristics as completeness, accuracy, conciseness, and relevancy are considered as positive while too much or too little information are both considered to be negative elements” (p. 102). Addressing the negative elements one could argue that the very nature of controlling what people see and do not see inserts bias into dissemination. It’s at this point where analyzing the potential for bias on e-government web sites becomes easier.

Private and non-profit web sites can be seen as middle-men in disseminating government information to its users. It’s easy to trust factual data as fact if it’s only presented differently, but the important thing to remember is that the disseminator of information defines the context for this data. That is to say that they will omit potentially important contextual information they see as irrelevant from the source material.

Maintaining services and generating revenue through web sites requires a substantial amount of resources.  Private, financially motivated e-government services may be startup funded by investors with very deep political interests. Non-profits running e-government web sites may have loose donation policies that would not prevent a serious politically-minded donator or lobbyist from influencing the presentation of information on the web site.

Morizov (2013) discusses a situation in which a data-mining web site lost easy access to government spending data when the government implemented a CAPTCHA security system into their login to make sure humans were accessing the data (p. 69). The web site visualized government spending data so that it would be easy for users to see spending patterns. It may seem like a step backward to make government information harder to get. How could open access ever be bad? Morizov (2013) makes a very enlightening point about how easy it would be for an e-government web site like this to abuse the information by inserting bias:

“Suppose that Aristarán’s [the web site administrator] elaborate charts, as well as the aggregate statistics they rely on, are likely to be hijacked by some populist media-savvy movement that seeks to cut funding to schools and shift all that money to, say, a nearby rum-making factory or simply to spend it on it on some annual celebration, and the government knows it is too weak to resist such pressure” (p.70).

Consider the situation in which an e-government website uses sponsors to push issues to the forefront of their web site. Ruck.us claims on their ‘About Us’ section that they want to help the digital revolution empower people to create real change on the issues they care about most (Ruck.us, About Us, 2013). The problem is that there is a bias on this website toward issues that the majority of its users care about and not the minority. People who use cloud technology and produce content have very different issues they care about than those who do not use cloud technology. Surveys also show that out of the entirety of the U.S. population less than 10% are active online contributors (Linders, 2012). Even if it is assumed that all of those less than 10% participated in Ruck.Us, that’s still over 90% of the population not being represented in the selection of big issues. Reading the Ruck.us ‘Terms of Service’ reveals policies that sell user information to third parties, and promote third-party content to its users (Ruck.us, Terms of Service, 2013). Furthermore their privacy policy explains that they use private information to tailor content on the web site according to their bias on what the user would be interested in (Ruck.us, Privacy Policy, 2013).

This discussion has hopefully illuminated some of the more complicated aspects of bias in e-government. Before deciding to use or trust such web sites it is important to look closely at their policies. Find out who is responsible for the web site and how it gets funded. Find out if the web site tailors its content according to the user. There is always an agenda.

 

References

Linders, D. (2012). From e-government to we-government: Defining a typology for citizen co-production in the age of social media. Government Information Quarterly, 29, 446-454.

Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism [Kindle version]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/

Papadomichelaki, X., & Mentzas, G. (2012). E-GovQual: A multiple-item scale for assessing e-government service quality. Government Information Quarterly, 29,98-109.

Ruck.us. (2011).  Retrieved from http://www.ruck.us/ at 5:25 PM October 27, 2013

One Comment

  1. Adam DeWitt / Nov 2 2013

    Thank you for this insightful information. Yes, there is always an agenda. A researcher must investigate the sources and administrators behind websites, just as they must understand the background of a particular author. One of the first rules in historiography (the study and interpretation of history) is to understand a particular author’s education, philosophy, and supporters; that way, one can think critically about a book, article, or web page while reading it. (One way is to read the author profile and reviews on the back covers of books.) This is extremely important in digital information literacy, as well.

    You touched on the possible political and ideological influences of donors or administrators on e-government websites. Has anyone else come across articles that discuss how those influences exert control over which information is disseminated and how it is portrayed?

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