When AI Spreads Propaganda
February 28, 2017
We thought Google was left-leaning, but an article at the Guardian, “How Google’s Search Algorithm Spreads False Information with a Rightwing Bias,” seems to contradict that assessment. The article cites recent research by the Observer, which found neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic views prominently featured in Google search results. The Guardian followed up with its own research and documented more examples of right-leaning misinformation, like climate-change denials, anti-LGBT tirades, and Sandy Hook conspiracy theories. Reporters Olivia Solon and Sam Levin tell us:
The Guardian’s latest findings further suggest that Google’s searches are contributing to the problem. In the past, when a journalist or academic exposes one of these algorithmic hiccups, humans at Google quietly make manual adjustments in a process that’s neither transparent nor accountable.
At the same time, politically motivated third parties including the ‘alt-right’, a far-right movement in the US, use a variety of techniques to trick the algorithm and push propaganda and misinformation higher up Google’s search rankings.
These insidious manipulations – both by Google and by third parties trying to game the system – impact how users of the search engine perceive the world, even influencing the way they vote. This has led some researchers to study Google’s role in the presidential election in the same way that they have scrutinized Facebook.
Robert Epstein from the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology has spent four years trying to reverse engineer Google’s search algorithms. He believes, based on systematic research, that Google has the power to rig elections through something he calls the search engine manipulation effect (SEME).
Epstein conducted five experiments in two countries to find that biased rankings in search results can shift the opinions of undecided voters. If Google tweaks its algorithm to show more positive search results for a candidate, the searcher may form a more positive opinion of that candidate.
This does add a whole new, insidious dimension to propaganda. Did Orwell foresee algorithms? Further complicating the matter is the element of filter bubbles, through which many consume only information from homogenous sources, allowing no room for contrary facts. The article delves into how propagandists are gaming the system and describes Google’s response, so interested readers may wish to navigate there for more information.
One particular point gives me chills– Epstein states that research shows the vast majority of readers are not aware that bias exists within search rankings; they have no idea they are being manipulated. Perhaps those of us with some understanding of search algorithms can spread that insight to the rest of the multitude. It seems such education is sorely needed.
Cynthia Murrell, February 28, 2017