Do you know how the First World War began? You’ll probably have to stop and think about it. You might try to look it up in a book or ask someone else. Maybe you’ll head to the library later. But most likely you’ve already done what everyone does: look it up on Google.
Let’s face it, we’re Google-dependent. Nine out of ten questions asked online today are answered by this unassailable authority. It is the most visited web page in the world, far ahead of competitors like Bing, Russian search engine Yandex or Chinese search engine Baidu. The whole world uses Google. Around 3.7 million people are using it right now, as you read this article.
Over the last two decades, Google has replaced traditional sources of knowledge. In a 2012 survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre, more than 2,000 US high school teachers admitted that their students no longer consulted books and libraries. Their primary source of information without exception was Google.
“The internet is a tremendous resource,” admits Professor Antonio Malalana. “The problem comes when you try to tell students that there’s a reality outside of the computer screen, that there are libraries, documentation centres, archives. This is what we are struggling with the most.”
And Malalana isn’t talking about high school students – he’s a professor of history at CEU San Pablo University in Madrid, Spain. As teachers warn, this “Google-dependency” is becoming extreme, particularly because we have yet to sufficiently develop the critical skills needed to manage it.
“Searching Google is very easy, you just type something in and answers appear. This is a major advantage but also a limitation,” says Ernest Abadal, professor of library and information science at the University of Barcelona. According to Abadal, by now we should all “know how to search, select the most relevant results and then assess the reliability and authority of those sources.” But in reality, we almost never do this.
Half of those who consult Google never leave the first page of results and less than nine per cent make it to page three. The average time spent consulting is less than nine minutes. We place our complete trust in the answers that Google selects and sorts for us, while forgetting the most important fact: this search engine is no oracle nor much less a library, but a giant company to which we have granted the power to filter all of the information that we receive.
The secret formula
We believe ourselves to be moving freely when searching for information on the internet. In reality we are guided by mathematical formulas, algorithms, that select some results and not others, that decide which page gets the coveted first place and which ones are buried forever amongst millions of results. They determine our path without us knowing how or why. The formula is secret.
“We don’t really know what’s behind Google’s algorithm. We don’t know why it prioritises certain results over others. These are totally opaque private systems, no one knows how they work,” says Virginia Díez, director of communications for Wikimedia España. And this is precisely what is raising doubts about the supposed neutrality of search results. Is Google giving us the best results or the best results for their advertisers?
As the company states on its webpage, “We sell advertising, not search results…Google’s business relationships do not affect changes in algorithms and the advertisers with whom we collaborate do not receive special treatment.”
“We’ll have to take them at their word,” says Dafne Calvo, researcher in digital participation and alternative internet at Spain’s University of Valladolid, “because the reality is that no one monitors or audits them. The best thing would be for the algorithm to be free and able to be monitored.”
Even if we can take Google at their word, their filters still manipulate us in very subtle ways when we search for information. The algorithm learns from our interests and previous searches and tends to recommend similar results. Rather than receiving the most relevant answers, we receive the ones that most agree with our viewpoints. This is what US internet activist Eli Pariser has termed ‘filter bubbles’. “These filters obscure diversity of opinion, which polarises the population into specific ideological spheres,” argues Calvo.
Coupled with this problem is the ease with which search engines have become delivery systems for fake news. Following the election of Donald Trump, Google acknowledged that at least 0.25 per cent of its daily traffic was linked to misleading, false or offensive information. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr, known for exposing the Cambridge Analytica scandal, discovered one example in 2016 when a query about the Holocaust took her to unexpected places.
To her surprise, the algorithm selected and recommended as its first results – those meant to be the most relevant and trustworthy, and which inevitably attract the most clicks – openly racist and anti-Semitic websites, which went so far as to deny the existence of the Holocaust.
If we can’t entirely trust the world’s most omnipotent search engine, perhaps we should investigate other sources of knowledge. There are private alternative search engines such as DuckDuckGo, which commits to not using previous search data to filter its results, but there are public alternatives as well.
One example is the Time Machine project, whose mission is to digitise all European cultural heritage and share it on a vast database that is free and open to all. Spearheaded by 30 universities and public institutions, this initiative also relies on artificial intelligence to extract raw information from original documents, which allow viewers to virtually travel through the history of Europe.
“The important thing is that we are talking about the democratisation of history and every citizen having access to this heritage with open and public search engines,” says Josep Lladós, director of the Computer Vision Centre at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, a participant in this international investment in public knowledge in the face of large private monopolies.
Another open and non-profit alternative is the platform Wikipedia, which has become one of the most common sources of knowledge and the world’s fifth most visited website. The site comprises roughly forty million articles in 287 different languages written by volunteers from all over the world. Can we trust Wikipedia?
According to Virginia Díez of Wikimedia España, the community has been working for years to ensure that we can. “Everything that is written in Wikipedia has to be referenced and verified by another external source. There is a very large community of ‘Wikipedians’ who are dedicated to reviewing the site, and all of the edits made to each article can be viewed. In 99 per cent of cases this is monitored. That’s not to say that there aren’t things that we miss, but usually they are identified and neutralised.”
In order to identify these errors as quickly as possible, Wikipedia has also begun to rely on artificial intelligence. Nonetheless, as they themselves recommend, it is best not to blindly rely on Wikipedia – not on it or on any other source. The most effective type of intelligence when it comes to verifying information is still human intelligence.
More critical thinking
Leaving aside the power that large technology companies have, the truth is, as Díez explains, that “we are living in a historic moment in which we have more access to knowledge than ever before and if we dedicate ourselves to a little research we are able to verify things much more easily than before.”
According to sociologist and neuropsychologist Vicente Huici, doing this means learning to swim against the tide because speed and the excess of information are conspiring to make us increasingly gullible.
“Human beings put all of their trust in connectivity and pay very little attention. This increased information and reduced critical capacity lead to a kind of mental block,” he warns.
Interestingly enough, this block can lead to the extreme opposite: total scepticism, to not believing anything by default, and this is also a danger. “Scepticism can lead us to a kind of social silence. People who choose to live in their bubbles. This can already been seen in the high levels of abstention,” adds Huici.
Faced with this challenge, the key, according to Abadal, “is in education,” in nurturing critical thinking from an early age, but also in remembering that traditional sources of knowledge are still valid. “No matter how much we live in the digital world, libraries continue to play an important role in preventing cultural and informational gaps among the population.” As the British writer Neil Gaiman puts it, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”