Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Role of Search Engines in Politics

In his book Off The Network, Ulises Ali Mejias, argues that search engine results present an incomplete picture of the world. They select what to index and what to return in your search results. How does this selectivity shape political opinion, if at all? Research set out in a 2017 working paper by the Quello Center found "search does indeed play a major role in shaping opinion – but it is not deterministic."

The working paper argues that while search engines are important, as they are one of the first places people go for trusted information, they are just one part of a diverse range of media sources people consult. The paper concludes that fears about filter bubbles, echo chambers, and fake news do not appear to be supported by the empirical evidence in this study of Internet users.

Research Approach

The research team conducted an online survey of Internet users in seven countries: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the US.  The survey asked Internet users how they use search, social media, and other media to be politically informed and what difference it makes for individuals participating in the democratic processes.

The full paper is available here:  Search and Politics: The Uses and Impacts of Search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United States

Key Conclusions

The paper's key conclusions were:

1. The concept of a filter bubble is overstated. They found Internet users "expose themselves to a variety of opinions and viewpoints online and through a diversity of media." Those interested in politics viewed an even greater variety of sources. That said search engines are a key source of information and they are trusted by people to provide accurate and reliable information.

2. The concept of echo chambers is also overstated. The researchers found most people "who search for political information expose themselves to different viewpoints." Most people don't silence those they disagree with, less than 20 percent reported unfriending or blocking someone because they disagreed with their political views. Search actually exposes people to new ideas with 48% of people reporting that they often learned something new when using search.

3. People are sceptical of information they find online and hence, the concern about fake news may also be overstated. Over half of respondents reported that they “often” or “very often” use search to check facts. This fact checking is limited by skills in the use of search and users could benefit from support and training in this area.

4. Those with an interest in politics report using multiple sources of interpersonal and mediated
information. Discussions with friends and family are particularly important, with 72% saying these discussions influence how they vote. Those that follow politics gain knowledge from multiple sources and this knowledge potentially empowers them to become opinion leaders and exert influence in their online and offline networks.

5. Content can gain attention by virtue of being popular. For example, people tend to select top search engine results or the most viewed content in publications. This skewed attention distribution, where very few articles gain most attention, is a feature of the internet.

6. People are more sceptical about the accuracy of social media than any other medium. These findings align with many other studies including a recent Edelman survey which found less than a quarter of people in the UK trust social media.