A few months ago, I was searching for abortion statistics, as one does now and then. I expected to find Guttmacher as the first result — they’re an extremely reputable organisation that specialises in data around reproductive rights and justice issues. Historically, it’s sometimes been faster for me to Google than to use a site’s search or navigation, so I assumed this would be a quick find. If not Guttmacher, I’d land on the CDC, another very trustworthy source.
Instead, the front page was almost entirely occupied with anti-choice garbage.
This is a problem for two reasons:
The first is that Google says it’s indexing information to make it easier for us to find the information that we need, from reliable sources. This is why I used Google to search for abortion statistics — I wanted factually correct information on the number of abortions occurring in the US in a given year, preferably expanded out into gestational age and broken down by socioeconomic class. Returning anti-choice propaganda is not providing me with useful information. Google is failing as a company if this is what comes up, because this is not what I, a consumer of the Search product, want.
It’s also an issue because anyone searching for abortion statistics, or information more broadly, is going to get hammered with counterfactual websites designed to scare people away from getting abortions. This worries me, because noncritical readers may have trouble differentiating between different kinds of information, and might not realise that statistics from some groups are not reliable.
When I re-checked as I was working on this piece, I found a different picture, and a results page that had been significantly cleaned up, which was heartening, but this is a much larger problem than just abortion.
Abortion isn’t the only case where this has come up lately. In fact, in the course of searching for information on a lot of sensitive social topics, I’ve been finding, again and again, that rightwing propaganda has risen in the search ranks. The actual information I need and want and am looking for is buried, replaced instead with information that is not relevant, and in some cases, dangerous. I find fake news sites, rightwing groups pushing agendas, and bile-filled rhetoric, but not information.
Search is an incredibly tricky product to develop and maintain — I get that. I used to work in the industry that attempts to game Search, after all. While Google has historically suppressed some results in extraordinary circumstances, that’s not a good model for handling a problem like this, and it would result in screeching about free speech and suppression and whatnot. But clearly something is going wrong here — why did Google think that abort76 was more relevant to me than Guttmacher, or that National Right to Life was of more interest than the CDC?
We’re living in an era where propaganda and falsehoods from the right are endangering people, and causing very real and serious problems. Google has a responsibility as a company interested in ethical information practices to help people find information they need, not to become a tool of the right. And I say this about the left as well, because searching for some things turns up a bunch of leftist garbage that is also counterfactual and in some cases actively hazardous, including things from known bad actors and unreliable sources. There is clearly a bigger problem at work here, and it’s partisanship in Search.
Somehow, people have figured out how to game the system to suppress actual useful results from neutral or reasonably unbiased sources and replace them with trash. And I don’t know exactly how this happened, but I do note that it started in the tail end of 2016, when everything was sort of going to hell.
Is this a problem beyond Google? This is a company with tremendous resources, and one that prides itself on innovation, creativity, and thoughtfulness. Google hires some extremely capable, smart people who think in nonlinear ways and explore issues from a variety of perspectives. So it’s surprising to me that they’re identifying this problem but still struggling with how to handle it, much as Facebook can’t seem to gain control of false information, and like Twitter utterly fails to address the plethora of rightwing accounts spreading dangerous falsehoods.
The internet is a big place and people can say what they like on it. However, users of the internet also have a right to be able to access usable, helpful, accurate information. I don’t think this is too much to ask, in the grand scheme of things. I’d argue that it’s essential — someone searching for information on a social issue that may affect their health or life should be assured that what they are seeing is actually valid. Facebook involves information shared into feeds — false information should be tagged, and users should consider unfollowing people to repeatedly share bad information. Twitter is a slightly different ecosystem, but one that still relies on networks.
Search, though, should be an independent property. When I go to the library and ask for books about World War Two, I don’t want Holocaust denial. Google is trying very hard to replace libraries as an authoritative, useful source of information. So why, when I search on Google for information about issues supported with an array of facts, am I repeatedly finding information that is dangerously counterfactual?
Image: Gymnastic Raccoon Balancing Act for a Snack, Sherwood411, Flickr