One in five adults in the U.S. believe their own country played a role in the 9/11 attacks.
One in three believe Big Pharma is hiding harmful side effects caused by vaccines. Thirty-seven percent believe the world is ruled by a cabal of people who go by the name the New World Order.
All, of course, are wrong. But where do they get their misguided beliefs?
A new study by academics across Europe analyzes the role search engines play in perpetuating untruths. “We know web search is a massively used service and is very important in the current information ecology,” says one of the authors of the paper, Mykola Makhortykh of the University of Bern, Switzerland.
His colleague Roberto Ulloa, of Germany’s GESIS - Leibniz-Institut für Sozialwissenschaften, says the group’s research is a vital way to see how institutions like search engines are shaping society and its beliefs. “Online platforms are digital institutions, and they have accumulated a lot of information,” Ulloa says. “That information affects individuals’ decisions at the end of the day.”
Only Google did a good job in not amplifying pro-conspiratorial thoughts.
Makhortykh, Ulloa, and their colleagues fed six common search terms popular with conspiracy theorists — “flat earth,” “9/11,” “qanon,” “illuminati,”“george soros,” and “new world order” — into five search engines: Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, and the Russian-language Yandex.
The researchers queried the controversial terms in different geographies, searching from the U.K., and from California and Ohio — chosen as proxies for Democratic- and Republican-leaning states. In the end, there wasn’t a material difference in search results based on where you were browsing from — but the search engine you used created an immense difference in how likely you are to be exposed to conspiracy theories.
More than three-quarters of search results for the six terms on Yandex served up sites that either mentioned or actively promoted conspiratorial thinking. On Yahoo, more than half did. Bing and DuckDuckGo saw conspiracy-mentioning or -promoting content take up slightly less than half of results.
Only Google did a good job in not amplifying pro-conspiratorial thoughts. It acknowledged conspiracies in around one in four results — roughly the same proportion of results that debunked conspiracy thinking around the six terms.
In part, the results come down to the types of sources the search engines pull from. Compared to other search engines, Yandex pulled in a higher proportion of posts from social media sites and a much lower proportion from news sites. More than half the results Yandex presented were links to outright conspiracy websites — something Google showed practically none of.
Google was the same as other search engines when it came to the value it placed on reference websites in its results. However, it presented more scientific sites in response to search terms than its competitors.
“The most interesting finding out of this paper is the fact that there’s a difference between the promotion of conspiracy content by Google and by other, less mainstream search engines,” says Carolina Are, who studies conspiracy theories at City, University of London. It also shows the way in which conspiracists — like people in other subcultures — are “hunted down and have to migrate,” says Are. “These less mainstream engines are where they’re migrating to [search] because their content is more visible there.”
Makhortykh believes “it’s both good for society and also for the industry” for search results to be audited by external groups for their reliability. That’s particularly the case because Makhortykh believes search engines are turning into “one of the forums of epistemic authority” — as truthful a gauge of truth as can possibly be seen. Many consider them impartial, factual, and passing along information without tilting the table in favor of or against conspiracy theories.
“Search engines should not be linking to social media platforms on topics and keywords linked to support for conspiracy theories.”
The more conspiratorially minded feel irked by the idea that Google is not presenting the same as other engines, at least according to the responses to a tweet about the results by paper co-author Aleksandra Urman (who was unable to talk to Input because of a vacation). Many responders said they’d forswear Google for its “censorship” while embracing Yandex’s mire of conspiracy theories.
All five search engines studied in the research were approached to speak for this story. Representatives for DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, and Yandex did not respond to a request for comment. A Microsoft Bing spokesperson tells Input, “We are always working to improve our results and after reviewing this case, we have taken action in line with our policies to help protect our customers.”
A Google spokesperson declined to provide a comment about how the company is able to better ward off conspiratorial links in their search results, but instead directed Input to this blog post about how Google provides reliable results.
Though Google met virtually with the paper’s authors in the wake of their research, Ulloa says that his team isn’t sure if Google’s less conspiratorially minded results are “intentional, or because of the parameters that they use, or the way they are training the algorithm.”
Ciarán O'Connor at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based organization tackling extremism, hate, and disinformation, says that Yandex’s reliance on social media platforms in its results is a concern. “We know that social media platforms are used by conspiracy communities to create ecosystems that allow for the widespread dissemination of misleading material, and we know that, in some instances, platforms even promote this,” he says.
“While social media platforms are getting better, they still provide permissible spaces for the spread of conspiracies,” he adds, “and acknowledging this, search engines should not be linking to social media platforms on topics and keywords that have been proven to be linked to support for conspiracy theories.”
“To some less internet-savvy audiences, the fact that something has been published somewhere means it’s true.”
The fact that search engines propagate conspiracy beliefs that emanate from social media at all is a concern, agrees Are. “To some less internet-savvy audiences, the fact that something has been published somewhere means it’s true,” she explains.
Which is why it’s so vital that people reevaluate how they interact with and think about search results. “I hope people become a little bit more aware of how they search,” says Ulloa. “Use two engines and compare the results if you want. Or modify the way you query something.”
As for Makhortykh, he never ceases to be amazed by the surprise on his students’ faces when he tells them the results from Google and Yandex are different. “It’s fine for people to be surprised,” he explains, “but I think it would be even better if they would start questioning the reasons they are surprised, then to make the next step. Ask yourself: What is the better source of information?”