How Google distorts your view of the world
Many charges have been leveled at Google. It steals your information, violates copyright, allows access to dangerous and illegal material and prioritizes its own sites while crushing any competition.
But perhaps the most troubling accusation about the search giant is that it distorts our view of the world, giving us a fatally flawed idea of what is going on around us.
This problem is known as the “filter bubble”: as Google learns from your searches and makes its results increasingly personalized and tailored to you, you stop seeing anything else.
On the one hand, that helps you to get exactly the results you are looking for, but on the downside, you stop encountering the ways other people see and interact with the world.
The phrase was invented by Eli Pariser in 2011, but as the internet becomes ever more customizable, the risks posed by the filter bubble become more pervasive.
In the same way, your Facebook news feed is programmed to show the posts you “care about”, so articles containing conflicting opinions and perspectives melt away, along with friends with different lives.
If you’re lazy about catching up on political or world news, you could quickly become entirely ignorant of it.
Humans have always had a confirmation bias, seeking out friends, hiring employees and reading about ideas they find familiar and likable. But when we only read one newspaper, or only watch one TV channel, we are aware we have chosen a single source that others might consider biased, according to Pacific Standard Magazine.
When we use the ubiquitous search engine, there is never a suggestion of bias. “There’s this crazy idea that all the billions of web pages have been thoroughly vetted and reviewed, and this omniscient source found the best,” Harvard psychologist Dr Robert Epstein told the magazine. “That whoever or whatever is doing the searching for us is infallible.”
In fact, the algorithm is bringing up paid-for adverts, results with the cleverest search engine optimization and websites that echo your tastes and habits. The risks for developing minds are enormous.
“There’s a narrowing down of focus,” psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, who works with adolescents, told news.com.au. “For most of my clients, Kim Kardashian is important, but the arms deal the US signed with Iran is not really on their radar. By and large, the focus is on peers, school, parents and reality TV.
“Parents used to sit around the table and have conversations with their children, but now they are distracted by this stuff themselves.”
This can lead to all kinds of misinformation, around sex, body image and wellbeing. Dr Carr-Gregg relates this to the prevalence of eating disorders and online harassment.
“For years, the world media constructed an idea of what the perfect woman should look like,” he said. “The internet has taken that to the next level. It’s so pervasive, girls see more images of how they should look every day than their grandparents saw in a lifetime.”
Dr Epstein says the bias could have far-reaching consequences for society: experiments show that voters are more likely to pick a candidate who is simply printed above another on a form.
Another scary thought is that Google, a multibillion-dollar corporation after all, is free to manipulate results based on its own rating of different websites.
There are some rays of hope, however. There is now an Australian Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner, which Dr Carr-Gregg says represents “the first time a government in the Western world has gone into bat for children being harassed online, with the power to tell corporations what to do”.
Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have embraced the move, with telecommunication firms such as Vodaphone also thinking more about the use of their devices.
Others have suggested a labeling system where Google can indicate when results have been curated, or a system of alternating customized and uncustomised results.
Dr Carr-Gregg has worked with Google to create a “digital drivers’ license, which he sees as a defining example of “technology companies starting to recognize their responsibilities”.
The license puts young people in various digital scenarios and tests them on what they would believe, what they’d click and how they would behave.
That may make us adults the last generation to grow up with no education on how to negotiate the head-spinning environment of online life.