Which search engine offers the most conspiracy theories?

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One in five adults in the United States believe their own country played a role in the 9/11 attacks.

One in three believe Big Pharma is hiding harmful side effects from vaccines. Thirty-seven percent believe the world is ruled by a cabal of people who call themselves the New World Order.

All of them, of course, are wrong. But where do they get their erroneous beliefs from?

A new study by academics across Europe analyzes the role search engines play in perpetuating untruths. “We know that web search is a massively used service and is very important in today’s information ecology,” says one of the paper’s authors, Mykola Makhortykh of the University of Bern, Switzerland.

His colleague Roberto Ulloa, from Germany’s GESIS – Leibniz-Institut für Sozialwissenschaften, says the group’s research is a key way to see how institutions like search engines shape society and its beliefs. “Online platforms are digital institutions and they have accumulated a lot of information,” says Ulloa. “This information ultimately affects individuals’ decisions.”

Only google did a good job of not amplifying the pro-conspirators thoughts.

Makhortykh, Ulloa and their colleagues introduced six common search terms popular with conspiracy theorists – “flat earth”, “9/11”, “qanon”, “illuminati”, “george soros” and “new world order” – in five search engines: Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo and Yandex in Russian.

The researchers queried the controversial terms in different geographies, starting with the UK, California and Ohio – chosen as proxies for Democratic and Republican-leaning states. In the end, there was no material difference in search results depending on where you were browsing from, but the search engine you were using created a huge difference in the likelihood that you were exposed to conspiracy theories.

More than three-quarters of search results for the six terms on Yandex served sites that mentioned or actively encouraged conspiracy thinking. On Yahoo, more than half did. Bing and DuckDuckGo saw content mentioning or promoting the conspiracy occupy just under half of the results.

Only Google has done a good job of not amplifying pro-conspiratorial thoughts. It recognized conspiracies in about one in four results – roughly the same proportion of results that debunked conspiracy thinking around the six terms.

Suspicious supply

In part, the results depend on the types of sources the search engines come from. Compared to other search engines, Yandex attracted a higher proportion of posts from social media sites and a much lower proportion from news sites. More than half of the results presented by Yandex were links to conspiracy websites, which Google hardly showed.

Google was the same as other search engines when it came to the value it placed on referring websites in its results. However, it featured more science sites in response to search terms than its competitors.

“The most interesting finding of this article is the fact that there is a difference between the promotion of conspiracy content by Google and by other less traditional search engines,” says Carolina Are, who studies conspiracy theories at City , University of London. It also shows how conspirators — like people from other subcultures — are “hunted down and have to migrate,” Are says. “These less traditional engines are the ones they are migrating to [search] because their content is more visible there.

Makhortykh believes “it’s good for both society and industry” that search results are audited by outside groups for reliability. This is especially the case because Makhortykh believes that search engines are becoming “one of the forums of epistemic authority” – as truthful a measure of truth as possible. Many consider them to be unbiased, factual and convey information without tipping the table for or against conspiracy theories.

“To look for engines should not be linked to social media platforms on the subjects and keywords related to the support of conspiracy theories.

The more conspiratorial feel irritated by the idea that Google doesn’t present the same as the other engines, at least according to the responses to a tweet about the results by the article’s co-author, Aleksandra Urman (who could not speak to Grab due to holidays). Many respondents said they would give up on Google for its “censorship” while embracing Yandex’s quagmire of conspiracy theories.

The five search engines studied in the research were approached to talk about this story. Representatives for DuckDuckGo, Yahoo and Yandex did not respond to a request for comment. Microsoft Bing spokesperson says Grab, “We are always working to improve our results and after reviewing this case, we have taken action in accordance with our policies to help protect our customers.”

A Google spokesperson declined to comment on how the company is better able to ward off conspiratorial links in its search results, but instead directed Grab to this blog post on how Google provides reliable results.

Although Google met virtually with the paper’s authors following their research, Ulloa says his team isn’t sure if Google’s less conspiratorial results are “intentional, or because of the parameters they use, or how they train the algorithm.”

Ciarán O’Connor of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based organization that fights extremism, hate and misinformation, says Yandex’s reliance on social media platforms in its bottom line is concerning. “We know that social media platforms are used by conspiratorial communities to create ecosystems that enable the widespread dissemination of misleading material, and we know that in some cases the platforms even promote it,” he says. .

“As social media platforms improve, they still provide permitted spaces for the spread of conspiracies,” he adds, “and recognizing this, search engines should not be tied to social media platforms. on topics and keywords that have been proven to be related to support conspiracy theories.

“For some less internet savvy public, the fact that something has been published somewhere means it’s true.”

That search engines are propagating conspiratorial beliefs that emanate from social media is a concern, Are agrees. “For some less internet-savvy audiences, the fact that something has been posted somewhere means it’s true,” she explains.

That’s why it’s so vital that people reassess how they interact with and think about search results. “I hope people become a little more aware of how they search,” Ulloa says. “Use two engines and compare results if you want. Or change 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 that Google and Yandex results are different. “It’s good that people are surprised,” he explains, “but I think it would be even better if they started questioning why they were surprised and then moved on to next step. Ask yourself: what is the best source of information? »

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