Google’s search engine has transformed from a clean and well-designed site to one that is rife with misinformation. The company has always prided itself on a simple homepage, while also providing accuracy. However, they have made some slight additions that have had major repercussions.
When Google first launched it was just a hyperlink list, but then it started to provide relevant data for different formats of searches. By the 2000s Google had spell correction, grammar check, autocomplete, universal search, and Knowledge Graph with quick searches.
These design changes are linking to Google properties, putting Google products over competitors. With these features, Google competes with DuckDuckGo; Bing and other search engines use a process that enables learning and investigation.
For example, if you searched “When is the North Dakota caucus” during the 2020 presidential election, Google answered that the date for the event was Saturday, March 28th. However, this information is wrong. The firehouse caucus in North Dakota took place on March 10 and it was the Republican convention that took place on March 28th.
Google summaries can mislead the public on issues of grave importance to sustaining democracy. When Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, conservative politicians and pundits quickly tried to frame the rioters as “anti-Trumpers,” spreading lies that antifa (a loose organization of people who believe in active and aggressive opposition to far-right movements) was to blame for the violence. On the day of the attack, The Washington Times ran an article titled “Facial Recognition Identifies Extremists Storming the Capitol,” supporting this claim. On the House floor and on Twitter, elected officials perpetuated this story.
Though the FBI found no evidence to back these claims, and the Washington Times corrected its article, the disinformation is still widely accessible with a simple Google search. When looking up “Washington Times Antifa Evidence”, the top result (as of this writing) is the original article with the headline “Facial Recognition Identifies Extremists Storming Capitol.” Underneath, Google summarizes an inaccurate argument, highlighting that those identified were antifa. The falsehoods have long-lasting effects since, per my study’s research, participants describe Google as a neutral provider of news and information. According to an April 2021 poll, over 20% of Republican voters still blame antifa for the violence that occurred on November 18th.
Even though we all use Google to fact-check information, it may actually strengthen our belief in false claims. This is because Google might deliver misleading or incorrect information, but also because people I talked with for my research believed that Google’s top search returns were “more important,” “more relevant,” and “more accurate”–they trusted Google more than the news–and they considered it to be a more objective source. In an effort to “do their own research,” people fall into an information trap, which happens when social media platforms tag content differently than how it appears on Facebook or other sites.
Independently conducting searches on the web makes audiences feel as though they are a part of the discovery, while they are actually participating in an engineered, scavenger hunt.
When you rely on a quick answer to a tough question, take time to explore the info. Apply scrutiny learned about information on social media, don’t assume Google search is always true.
Sometimes it is just as simple as clicking on something.