Hey Google, who will win the Australian election?
Steve Ahern checks what smart speakers are telling voters, and is not impressed.
5.6 million people in Australia own smart speakers and about 70% use them every day.
Chances are that some of those people will ask their smart speaker about the election. What will they find out and what will the source of the information be? The answer to that question is not good.
During America’s last election the most asked election questions to smart speakers were:
- what’s the status of the U.S. election
- who won the election
- tell me about the election
As our Australian election approaches on Saturday 21st May , what are smart speakers telling us and where is the information coming from?
I asked some questions of my Alexa and Google smart speakers to find out.
I was happy with the answer when I asked ‘Alexa, who should I vote for.’
Alexa told me, ‘that’s for you to decide.’ Google did not understand the question.
Alexa did not have an opinion on who will win the Australian election. When I asked the same question to Google it read me a few passages from the Australian Electoral Commission website.
Not great, but so far so good. Then it went downhill.
I asked a few questions about my local electorate, North Sydney and the candidates.
Google and Alexa both gave me information about Trent Zimmerman, the sitting Liberal Member, from Wikipedia. Not too bad, but Wikipedia is an open source online encyclopedia open to editing by anyone, so it is not a highly credible source.
I then asked ‘who is Kylea Tink,’ one of the independent candidates. Neither of my smart speakers knew who Kylea was. Google gave me information about a film star with a similar name from IMDB and Alexa gave me info about an American sportsperson from Ask.com. Really!
I won’t bore you with the sad responses for the other candidates, but suffice to say that it was no better. Some answers came from impressive sounding sources such as Reference.com which is really just an aggregator site of Ask.com and does not have any credible information about Australian politics.
The ABC has detailed information about electorates and candidates on its websites and its audio and video platforms. Why didn’t I hear anything from those sources in answer to my requests?
Because Australia’s national broadcaster has not interacted well enough with the companies that provide the infrastructure behind these smart speakers, Amazon and Google, to workshop search phrases that will ping people back to its credible websites and audio reports.
Neither has Nine Entertainment, proprietor of Nine’s talk radio stations.
I asked my speakers ‘what is Neil Mitchell’s opinion on the election,’ and got a response from the LA Times about President Clinton. Then I asked for ‘2GB’s Ben Fordham’s opinion on the election.’ It did find something relevant from 2GB and gave me the option to hear old election related audio from Alan Jones. Oops! Despite Neil and Ben doing regular editorials on the election, none of those were triggered to play by my requests.
Even though it is probably too late to do anything about these oversights before election day, there is still time for our credible media companies to liaise with the companies that power smart speakers so that when people ask the question on election weekend ‘who won the election,’ they will get an answer from a credible news media source, not Wikipedia or Ask.com.
All our media companies will have news streams covering the election on the weekend of 21 and 22 May, but will smart speaker users be able to find them if they ask a simple question about the election such as ‘who won the election?’ Not without help. If users ask specifically ‘play me ABC NewsRadio’ or ‘play me 2GB,’ they will get these streams, but if they ask a general question what will they get?
In America after the Biden election, when Donald Trump was spreading misinformation that the election was rigged, some answers to the question ‘who won the US election’ quoted from conspiracy websites or played podcasts claiming that Trump had won. Could anything like that happen here?
I spoke to the Australian Electoral Commission who told me: “we do not have a partnership with Alexa/Google. This is something the AEC would love to do, however we weren’t able to set this up with Google for the 2022 federal election… when we do have a result, it will be very well documented across multiple media outlets and Alexa and Google will draw from this when asked the question.” The AEC will have its usual live data feed available for media publications to access raw data files of the count to analyse on election night.
Insiders at the ABC and commercial media companies have told me that better smart speaker interaction is “on the wishlist,” but that it has not been implemented for this election.
The problem is that smart speakers and smart TVs are not that smart. They depend on the information that is being fed to them, otherwise they will use their own search algorithms to find random sources to try to answer questions. Our media companies need to engage better with Alexa and Google to ensure they know how to find credible information from Australian media sources.
Newspapers were notably absent on the audio and video platforms in my experiment despite their moves into podcasts and video reports. Smart TVs performed a little better.
When I asked ‘how do I vote in the Australian Election,’ my smart TV gave me a how to vote video from ABC News published 26 days ago, followed by a video explaining preferential voting made 3 years ago by Griffith University and a 2 year old explainer video from Upstart TV.
When I asked ‘who is going to win the Australian Election,’ I got a 6 month old opinion piece from Richo on Sky News predicting that the Labor Party will win. Second choice was an ABC analysis of seats by Anthony Green, followed by a 7 News story from a month ago predicting a Labor win.
I asked ‘who should I vote for in the Australian Election,’ and got a video explainer about voting from The Guardian made 28 days ago, followed by a 28 day piece about preferential voting made by ABC News.
All of these reports were delivered to my smart TV through YouTube, not any Australian media gateways such as iView, 7Plus, 10Play or others. At least the smart TV drew its offerings from Australian media sources… but they were all through the Youtube gatekeeper.
Commercial Radio Australia and other Australian media companies have called for greater controls on the gatekeepers of the pipes that feed these new information portals. I agree with them.
It is important that these new information pipes present information responsibly, not randomly. As usage of these new ‘smart’ ways to consume news increases, so will the implications of who and what information is being fed to users.
To work out the best way to achieve this we first need awareness of what is going on, that’s why I did my experiment. Once we work out what is happening in this new environment, then industry, regulators, society and government can work together to develop the best ways to guide the companies behind these new services to present information that is responsible, Australian, and from credible sources.
About the Author
Steve Ahern is the Head of the ABU Media Academy and was the founding editor of this website.
He writes and speaks extensively on new media and journalism trends.