Before we get into this, I want acknowledge that search engines put a world of relevant information at our fingertips and that they help people find answers faster than ever before. They’re great. I love ’em. I use ’em. But I also see a dark side to them.
Ask anyone a question. If they don’t know the answer, in all likelihood, they will Google for it from a smartphone. Voila! answers! Are they accurate? Are they true? These are much bigger questions.
A frequently quoted book, Prioritizing Web Usability (2006) by Jakob Nielsen, claims 93 percent of Web searchers never go past the first page of results. Yet Google and other search engines often return millions of pages.
At one time, an army of professional authors, editors, reviewers, librarians and fact checkers helped verify and screen information before dishing it up to readers. Today, that verification process applies to only a tiny fraction of all the information put online. Anyone can self-publish anything. “No experience necessary” often equates to “no truth or accuracy required.”
Limitations of Search Engines and Human Brains
Search engines simply report all references to a phrase on the Internet; they make no attempt to determine the truth or accuracy of claims. Yet most people assume the truth of something published. Why?
A 2012 report called Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science by Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich Ecker, Colleen Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook of the Universities of Western Australia, Michigan and Queensland concludes that, “Cognitively, it is much easier for people to accept a given piece of information than to evaluate its truthfulness.” (Comment: this is especially true when search engine results stretch to thousands or millions of pages.)
The Stickiness of Misinformation
This fascinating report surveys academic literature relating to why we believe certain things we read or hear – even though they may be false. It begins with a discussion of several public policy issues, such as health care reform, vaccinations, and justifications for wars. It also discusses why misinformation is “sticky,” i.e., how hard it is to correct misinformation once it becomes rooted.
According to the report, disinformation in the U.S. healthcare debate peaked in 2009 when Sarah Palin used the phrase “death panels” on her Facebook page. “Within five weeks,” the report continues, “86% of Americans had heard the claim and half either believed it or were unsure about its veracity.”
Mainstream news media and fact-checkers reported that Palin’s characterization of provisions in the proposed law was false. But even today, four years later, a Google search for the term yields 35,800,000 results (in 0.16 seconds)! A scan of the first 20 pages of posts in the Google search revealed:
- A few were dedicated to exposing “the myth” of death panels, including (to be fair), the very first post in Wikipedia.
- Most posts conflicted with each other, i.e., a large number claimed the law would create “death panels” and a large number claimed it would not.
- A large percentage was posted within the last few months, indicating that many people are trying to resurrect the term or keep the debate going, and that the authors of the paper are correct – misinformation is sticky.
Existing Beliefs Influence Belief in New Information
Determining the validity of information requires hard work and an open mind. The problem, say the authors of the Misinformation report, is that most people don’t seek information that contradicts their view of the world. Said another way, they tend to like information that supports their view.
Even when directly confronted with retractions and conflicting facts, many people cling to their original beliefs by saying something like, “Well, we’re all entitled to our opinions.” In fact, say the authors, conflicting information often serves to strengthen belief in erroneous information.
How The Search for Truth is Getting More Difficult
Think of the Internet as a giant information archive. When topics such as healthcare become politicized, social networks, blogs and circular references turn the Internet into an echo chamber. Millions of references can accumulate in days as people report on reports of other reports, filtering information and putting their own spin on things along the way.
While search engines dutifully record the location of information, they can’t help us determine the truth of it. The sheer volume of conflicting information that they present makes the search for truth like looking for diamonds in a garbage dump.