Google’s Search Results Can Influence Your Opinion, and it’s dangerous | Storm Internet
In December of 2020 an article appeared on Forbes about 13-year old Agastya Sridharan who proved that Google’s search results can influence opinions. This is as revealing about the search engine monolith as it is about how we use it. And it is troubling.
The scene is San Diego, California, where teenager Agastya Sridharan decided to find out whether search results can alter established opinions in a voting environment.
To achieve this Sridharan created two surveys.
In the first survey two fictional candidates, Ronald Bush and Julia Hillard, were created and based on Donald Trump and Kamala Harris respectively.
Participants in this science project study were presented with a biography of each candidate and had to record who they would vote for, and were afterwards shown simulated Google search results for the phrase “Julia Hillard vs Ronald Bush” with links to articles taken from allsides.com. These articles were only altered to reflect the biographical information of each fictional candidate.
The second survey used the exact same methodology, but instead of using fictional characters, the names Donald Trump and Joseph Biden were used.
The results of Sridharan’s two surveys indicate that the order in which Google search results appear can dramatically affect opinion.
Read the full Forbes article here.
Put differently, we believe a result to be more important and correct the higher it appears in the SERPs. A similar sentiment has been echoed by research psychologist Robert Epstein who suggested that, during the 2016 elections, the search engine displayed results skewed in favour of one political party.
“In 2016, biased search results generated by Google’s search algorithm likely impacted undecided voters in a way that gave at least 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton (whom I supported). I know this because I preserved more than 13,000 election-related searches conducted by a diverse group of Americans on Google, Bing, and Yahoo in the weeks leading up to the election, and Google search results – which dominate search in the U.S. and worldwide – were significantly biased in favor of Secretary Clinton in all 10 positions on the first page of search results in both blue states and red states.”
According to former senior Google engineer Gregory Coppola, searches for Clinton did not autocomplete to words that were popular searches if they reflected negatively on the candidate. Additionally, in searches for Donald Trump, 20% of the results were from CNN which hasn’t always been on the best of terms with the White House.
Now whether or not you believe that all of this is conspiracy is up to you. Google’s senior brass certainly deny manipulating search results and maybe, just maybe, the accusatory finger shouldn’t be pointed at the search engine alone.
Producing search results is a process that takes a multitude of factors into account including your syntax, search history, and location. Where news sources are concerned, the algorithm that produces these search results not only take the usual gamut of SEO vectors into account, but also the quality of reporting, as found by The Economist’s own statistical study.
Equally important is the fact that Google has always favoured high engagement. In other words, if many individuals are consuming and linking to a specific piece of content, then the search engine is likely to position that page higher in the search results.
Of course, this in itself presents a potentially dangerous shortcoming on the part of the search engine. Sensationalism and misinformation can skew search results, which means a one-sided or incorrect view on any topic can easily be perpetuated.
After the 2016 elections there was a brief moment of panic when a result appeared which (incorrectly) stated that President Obama was instituting martial law. Several former U.S. presidents have been linked (also incorrectly) to the KKK.
In a quick search for “what do russians think about the ukraine invasion”, results from Google list publications predominantly from the U.K. and U.S. The same search on duckduckgo.com, at the time of writing this post, lists at least one Russian source on the first page, themoscowtimes.com.
A Yahoo News article reported a request by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter “must do more to tackle disinformation related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
Facebook responded with reference to a tweet which said it was also considering similar requests from other governments, saying it will “continue to label and fact-check these outlets as well as prohibit ads and demonetise their accounts globally”.
If leaders, politicians, and big tech are aware of the power persuasion inherent to those top search results as young Sridharan found, and if they think that public opinion is important, wouldn’t it then make sense to carefully curate what people think? If entire countries push for censorship of certain types of information, even legitimately so, doesn’t that in itself introduce an automatic bias?
Despite its vast reach and dominance, Google is still just a business that has to appease the demands of stakeholders and governments.
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