Search engines are one of society’s main gateways to information and people, but they are also vectors of disinformation. Similar to problematic social media algorithms, search engines learn to serve you what you and others have clicked on before. Because people are drawn to the sensational, this dance between algorithms and human nature can help spread disinformation.
Search engine companies, like most online services, make money not only by selling ads, but also by tracking users and selling their data through real-time auctions. People are often tricked into disinformation by their desire for sensational and entertaining news and information that is either controversial or supports their opinions. A study found that the most popular YouTube videos on diabetes are less likely to contain medically valid information than less popular videos on the topic, for example.
Ad-driven search engines like social media platforms are designed to reward clicks on engaging links because they help search companies improve their business statistics. As a researcher who studies search and recommender systems, my colleagues and I show that this dangerous combination of business motivation and individual vulnerability makes the problem difficult to solve.
How search results go wrong
When you click on a search result, the search algorithm learns that the link you clicked is relevant to your search query. This is called relevance feedback. These comments help the search engine to give that link more weight for that query in the future. If enough people click this link enough times, thus giving strong relevancy comments, that website will start showing higher in search results for it and related queries.
People are more likely to click on links displayed higher in the search results list. This creates a positive feedback loop – the higher a website appears, the more clicks there are, which in turn causes that website to move higher or keep it higher. Search engine optimization techniques use this knowledge to increase website visibility.
There are two aspects to this misinformation problem: how a search algorithm is rated and how humans react to headlines, headlines, and snippets. Search engines, like most online services, are rated using a range of metrics, one of which is user engagement. It is in the best interest of search engine companies to give you things that you want to read, watch, or just click. Therefore, when a search engine or any recommendation system creates a list of items to present, it calculates the likelihood that you will click on the items.
Traditionally, this was aimed at bringing out the most relevant information. However, the notion of relevance has become blurred because people use search to find entertaining search results as well as genuinely relevant information.
Imagine that you are looking for a piano tuner. If someone shows you a video of a cat playing the piano, would you click on it? Many would, even if it has nothing to do with piano tuning. The research department feels validated with positive feedback on relevance and is learning that it’s okay to show a cat playing the piano when people are looking for piano tuners.
In fact, it’s even better than showing the relevant results in many cases. People love to watch funny cat videos, and the search system gets more clicks and user engagement.
It may sound harmless. So what if people get distracted every now and then and click on results that aren’t relevant to the search query? The problem is, people are drawn to exciting images and sensational headlines. They tend to click on conspiracy theories and sensational news, not just cats playing the piano, and do so more than click on real news or relevant information.
Famous but fake spiders
In 2018, searches for “new deadly spider” increased on Google following a Facebook post claiming that a new deadly spider had killed several people in multiple states. My colleagues and I analyzed the top 100 Google search results for “deadly new spider” in the first week of this trending query.
This story turned out to be bogus, but people looking for it were widely exposed to misinformation related to the original bogus post. As people continued to click and share this misinformation, Google continued to push these pages to the top of search results.
This pattern of exciting, unverified stories emerging and people clicking on them continues, with people seemingly indifferent to the truth or believing that if a trusted service like Google Search shows them these stories, the stories must be true. More recently, a refuted report claiming that China let the coronavirus leak from a lab has gained traction on search engines due to this vicious cycle.
Spot the misinformation
To test how well people distinguish between right and wrong information, we designed a simple game called “Google Or Not”. This online game shows two sets of results for the same query. The goal is simple: choose the package that is reliable, trustworthy, or most relevant.
One of these two sets has one or two outcomes that are either verified and labeled as misinformation or debunked story. We made the game publicly available and advertised through various social media channels. Overall, we collected 2,100 responses from over 30 countries.
When we analyzed the results, we found that about half the time people mistakenly chose the set with one or two misinformation results as trustworthy. Our experiments with hundreds of other users over many iterations have yielded similar results. In other words, about half the time people choose results that contain conspiracy theories and fake news. As more and more people choose these inaccurate and misleading results, search engines are learning that this is what people want.
Besides big tech regulatory and self-regulatory issues, it’s important for people to understand how these systems work and how they make money. Otherwise, market economies and the natural propensity of people to be attracted to catchy the links will keep the vicious circle going.
This article by Chirag Shah, Associate Professor of Information Science, University of Washington is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.