One in five adults in the United States believes their own country played a role in the 9/11 attacks.
One in three people think Big Pharma is hiding the harmful side effects of vaccines. Thirty-seven percent believe the world is ruled by a cabal of people called the New World Order.
All, of course, are wrong. But where do they get their mistaken beliefs from?
A new study by European academics analyzes the role of search engines in perpetuating untruths. “We know that web search is a heavily used service and is very important in today’s information ecology,” says one of the article’s authors, Mykola Makhortykh of the University of Bern, Switzerland.
His colleague Roberto Ulloa, from GESIS – Leibniz-Institut für Sozialwissenschaften in Germany, says the group’s research is an essential way to see how institutions like search engines shape society and its beliefs. “Online platforms are digital institutions and they have accumulated a lot of information,” says Ulloa. “This information ultimately affects the decisions of individuals.”
Only Google did a good job not amplifying the pro-conspirators thoughts.
Makhortykh, Ulloa and their colleagues provided six common search terms popular with conspiracy theorists – “flat earth”, “9/11”, “qanon”, “illuminati”, “george soros” and “new world order” – in five search engines: Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo and Yandex in Russian.
Researchers queried controversial terms in different geographies, searching the UK, California and Ohio – chosen as proxies for Democratic and Republican-leaning states. In the end, there was no significant difference in search results depending on where you were browsing – but the search engine you used made a huge difference in the likelihood of you being exposed. to conspiracy theories.
More than three-quarters of the search results for the six terms on Yandex went to sites that actively mentioned or encouraged conspiratorial thinking. On Yahoo, more than half have done so. Bing and DuckDuckGo saw content mentioning or promoting a conspiracy taking up just under half of the results.
Only Google has done a good job of not amplifying pro-conspiratorial thoughts. He acknowledged conspiracy in about one in four results – roughly the same proportion of results that debunked conspiracy thinking around the six terms.
In part, the results depend on the types of sources the search engines come from. Compared to other search engines, Yandex attracted a higher proportion of posts from social media sites and a much lower proportion of news sites. More than half of the results Yandex presented were links to outright conspiratorial websites, which Google hardly showed.
Google was the same as other search engines when it came to the value it placed on referring websites in its results. However, it featured more scientific sites in response to search terms than its competition.
“The most interesting finding from this article is the fact that there is a difference between the promotion of conspiracy content by Google and other less traditional search engines,” says Carolina Are, who studies conspiracy theories at City, University of London. It also shows how conspirators – like people from other subcultures – are “hunted down and must migrate,” Are says. “These less common engines are where they migrate to [search] because their content is more visible there.
Makhortykh believes “it is good for both society and industry” for research results to be audited by outside groups for reliability. This is especially the case because Makhortykh believes that search engines are becoming “one of the forums of epistemic authority” – as true a gauge of truth as one can see. Many see them as unbiased, factual, and conveying information without tipping the table for or against conspiracy theories.
“To look for motors should not be linked to social media platforms on the subjects and keywords related to the care of conspiracy theories.
The most conspiratorial people feel annoyed that Google does not present the same thing as the other engines, at least according to the responses to a tweet about the results by article co-author Aleksandra Urman (who was unable to speak to Grab because of the holidays). Many respondents said they would quit Google for its “censorship” while embracing the quagmire of Yandex conspiracy theories.
The five search engines studied in the research were approached to discuss this story. Representatives for DuckDuckGo, Yahoo and Yandex did not respond to a request for comment. Microsoft Bing spokesperson says Grab, “We are always working to improve our results and after reviewing this case, we have taken action in accordance with our policies to help protect our clients.”
A Google spokesperson declined to comment on how the company is able to better ward off conspiratorial links in its search results, but instead directed Grab to this blog post on how Google delivers reliable results.
Although Google virtually met the authors of the article as a result of their research, Ulloa says his team is unsure whether Google’s less conspiratorial results are “intentional, or because of the parameters they use,” or how they train the algorithm. “
Ciarán O’Connor of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based organization that fights extremism, hate and disinformation, says Yandex’s reliance on social media platforms in its results is cause for concern. “We know that social media platforms are used by conspiratorial communities to create ecosystems that allow for the widespread dissemination of deceptive material, and we know that in some cases the platforms even promote this,” says- he.
“As social media platforms improve, they still provide permitted spaces for the propagation of conspiracies,” he adds, “and recognizing this, search engines should not link to social media platforms. social media on topics and keywords that have been shown to be related to support conspiracy theories.
“For some less Internet savvy public, the fact that something was published somewhere means it’s true. “
That search engines are propagating conspiratorial beliefs that emanate from social media is a concern, Are agrees. “For some less sophisticated audiences on the Internet, the fact that something has been published somewhere means it’s true,” she explains.
This is why it is so vital that people re-evaluate the way they interact and think about search results. “I hope people will become a little more aware of how they do their research,” says Ulloa. “Use two engines and compare the results if you like. Or change the way you query something.
As for Makhortykh, he never ceases to be amazed at the surprise on the faces of his students when he announces to them that the results of Google and Yandex are different. “It’s good that people are surprised,” he explains, “but I think it would be even better if they started to question why they’re surprised and then move on. next step. Ask yourself: what is the best source of information? “