Sunday 23rd October 2016                 Change text size:

The Google searches that blind us


Rob Steadman tells us how the internet giant’s ‘filter bubbles’ could work for, and against, important issues like climate change.

Advancements in internet technology have changed how we consume information. Google obviously springs firmly to mind. The internet giant has revolutionised the way in which we use the internet bringing us a wealth of handy tools and resources like search, Google Maps, Google Reader, and Google Ads.

Their innovative applications have made doing research fun and easy.

But is it all good? Have you noticed lately that when you make a search, you get almost exactly what you‘d expected? Some might say that’s the point, but look closer and there may be an inherent problem.

Google’s personalised search is a feature whereby a user’s search is automatically recorded by Google web history. When that person performs another search, the results are generated based on what search terms you’ve previously used, and even what websites you’ve visited.  All of this is used by Google to deliver the results you want.

The problem is it generates ‘sameness’. If you constantly look for information on a specific topic, philosophy, or political persuasion, then that is what you will get from your Google search, and not for example, any opposing ideologies or sources.

In a recent conference from non-profit organisation Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) presented by former executive director Eli Pariser, the idea of ‘filter bubbles’ was explored.

Pariser explained that the current situation is very much like what “early newspapers in 1915 experienced”, where “gatekeepers controlled the flow of information”. He described how things like Google personalisation is detrimental to the idea of the internet as a community and is, therefore, “isolating”.

Freedom of speech and freedom of information is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. The problem lies in Google’s influence. One billion people are estimated to make a Google search every day.

If someone is researching climate change denial, Google will intuitively note that the user is looking at articles, files, and web sites that all downplay climate change and debunk it as myth. It will then continue to provide a diet of this in all future searches.

Understanding the detailed science is half the battle in the debate around climate change. If people who dismiss the problem do not get to see the other side of the argument, and vice versa, then Google is unwittingly implicit in weakening the debate about the gravest threat to our way of life.

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