Google profits from spreading fake news — here’s how


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.

Dissemination of search results for 'new deadly spider' on Google