Search Engines and Conspiracy Theories

Stuart A. Thompson, writing for The New York Times, under the provocative headline “Fed Up With Google, Conspiracy Theorists Turn to DuckDuckGo”:

Other research has also found that Bing’s algorithm surfaces less trustworthy information than Google does when searching for conspiracy theories. One study last year showed that slightly fewer than half of all results on Bing and DuckDuckGo for six popular conspiracy theories mentioned or promoted the ideas. Google fared better, with about a quarter of links mentioning the ideas but nearly none supporting them. Yahoo fared worse than Bing and DuckDuckGo, and the Russian search engine Yandex fared worst among the group.

Newer and more esoteric conspiracy theories are far more likely to return misleading results because of the so-called data void. Conspiracy theorists tend to publish content about new ideas long before mainstream sources, dominating search results as the terms begin spreading online. Other topics never grab the attention of mainstream sources, giving the conspiracy theorists a long-term presence in search results.

What a tricky problem for search engines to solve. This Times story does suggest that Google is ahead of rival search engines at presenting results that don’t support bunk conspiracy theories, but I don’t think it’s clear what the “correct” balance is here. If you really do want to see the crazy “QAnon” theories for yourself, you should be able to find them, no? But at the same time search engines certainly don’t want to legitimize radicalizing nonsense.

Wednesday, 23 February 2022