Google Search Is Quietly Destroying Democracy
A series of incremental changes over the years has transformed the tool from an explorative searchfunction to one that is ripe for deception.
Photo-illustration: Jacqui VanLiew; Getty Images
Google’s aesthetic has always been rooted in a clean appearance—a homepage free of advertising and pop-up clutter,adorned only with a signature “doodle” decorating its name. Part of why many users love Google is its sleek designs and ability toreturn remarkably accurate results. Yet the simplicity of Google’s homepage is deceptively static. Over time, the way that thecorporation returns information has shifted ever so slightly. These incremental changes go largely unnoticed by the millions of users who rely on the search enginedaily, but it has fundamentally changed the information seeking processes—and not necessarily for the better.
Francesca Tripodi is an Assistant Professor at the School of Information and Library Science and a Senior Researcherat the Center for Information Technology and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is the author of The Propagandists’ Playbook.
When Google first launched, queries returned a simple list of hyperlinked websites. Slowly, that format changed. First Googlelaunched AdWords, allowing businesses to buy space at the top and tailoring returns to maximize product placement. By the early 2000sit was correcting spelling, providing summaries of the news under the headlines, and anticipating our queries with autocomplete. In 2007 itstarted Universal Search, bringing together relevant information across formats (news, images, video). And in 2012 it introducedKnowledge Graph, providing a snapshot that sits separate from the returns, a source of knowledge that many of us have come to rely onexclusively when it comes to quick searches.
As research has shown, much of these design changes now link back to Google properties, placing its products above competitors. Instead ofshowing just a series of blue links, its goal, according to official SEC documents filed by Alphabet, is to increasingly “provide direct answers.” By adding all of these features,Google—as well as competitors such as DuckDuckGo and Bing, which also summarize content—has effectively changed the experience from an explorative search environment to a platform designed around verification, replacing a process thatenables learning and investigation with one that is more like a fact-checking service.
Google’s latest desire to answer our questions for us, rather than requiring us to click on the returns and find the answers forourselves, is not particularly problematic if what you’re seeking is a straightforward fact like how many ounces make up a gallon. Theproblem is, many rely on search engines to seek out information about more convoluted topics. And, as my research reveals, this shift can lead to incorrect returns that often disrupt democraticparticipation, confirm unsubstantiated claims, and are easily manipulatable by people looking to spread falsehoods.
For example, if one queried “When is the North Dakota caucus” during the 2020 presidential election, Google highlighted the wronginformation, stating that it was on Saturday, March 28, 2020. In fact, the firehouse caucus took place on March 10, 2020—it was theRepublican convention that took place on the 28th. Worse yet, when errors like this happen, there is no mechanism whereby users whonotice discrepancies can flag it for informational review.
Google summaries can also mislead the public on issues of grave importance to sustaining our democracy. When Trump supporters stormedthe Capitol on January 6, 2021, conservative politicians and pundits quickly tried to frame the rioters as “anti-Trumpers,” spreadinglies that antifa (a loose organization of people who believe in active and aggressive opposition to far-right movements) was to blamefor the violence. On the day of the attack, The Washington Times ran an article, titled “Facial Recognition Identifies Extremists Storming the Capitol,” supporting the claim, and thisstory was perpetuated on the House floor and on Twitter by elected officials.
Yet even though the FBI has found no evidence to back these claims, and The Washington Times ultimately issued a correction to the article, the disinformation is still widelyaccessible with a simple Google search. If one were to look up “Washington Times Antifa Evidence,” the top return (as of thetime of this writing) is the original article with the headline “Facial Recognition Identifies Extremists Storming the Capitol.”Underneath, Google summarizes an inaccurate argument, highlighting that the ones identified as the extremists were antifa. Perpetuatingthese falsehoods has long-lasting effects, especially since those in my study described Google as a neutral purveyor of news andinformation. According to an April 2021 poll, more than 20 percent of Republican voters still blame antifa for the violence that transpiredthat day.
Courtesy of Yale University Press
Buy This Book At:
If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. This helps support our journalism. Learn more.
The trouble is, many users still rely on Google to fact-check information, and doing so might strengthen their belief in falseclaims. This is not only because Google sometimes delivers misleading or incorrect information, but also because people I spoke with for myresearch believed that Google’s top search returns were “more important,” “more relevant,” and “more accurate,” and theytrusted Google more than the news—they considered it to be a more objective source. Many said the Knowledge Graph might be the onlysource they consult, but few realized how much Google has changed—that it is not the search engine it once was. In an effortto “do their own research,” people tend to search for something they saw on Facebook or other social media platforms, but because ofthe way content has been tagged and categorized, they are actually falling into an information trap .
This leads to what I refer to in my book, The Propagandists’ Playbook, as the “IKEA effect of misinformation.” Business scholars have found that when consumersbuild their own merchandise, they value the product more than an already assembled item of similar quality—they feel more competentand therefore happier with their purchase. Conspiracy theorists and propagandists are drawing on the same strategy, providing a tangible,do-it-yourself quality to the information they provide. Independently conducting a search on a given topic makes audiences feel like theyare engaging in an act of self-discovery when they are actually participating in a scavenger-hunt engineered by those spreading thelies.
To combat this, users must recalibrate their thinking on what Google is and how information is returned to them, particularly as aheated midterm season approaches. Rather than assume that returns validate truth, we must apply the same scrutiny we’ve learned tohave toward information on social media. Googling the exact same phrase that you see on Twitter will likely return the sameinformation you saw on Twitter. Just because it’s from a search engine doesn’t make it more reliable. We must be mindful of thekeywords we start with, but we should also take a bit more time to explore the information returned to us. Rather than rely on quickanswers to tough questions, take the time to click on the links, do a bit of digging on who is doing the reporting, and read informationfrom a variety of sources. Then start the search again but from a different perspective, to see how slight shifts in syntax change your results.
After all, something we might not even think to consider could be just a click away.