Friday Afternoon Bonus Post: Subtle Effects of Google — Filtering Bias

[A quick afternoon post, based on a message I received.] Earlier this week, I commended one of our rabbi’s HHD sermons. She just posted it, and I recommend that everyone read it (you can also visit this page and hear her read it). The subject is an interesting one: the bias you don’t know you get from Google search results.

Those of us who remember the early days of the web remember search engines such as Alta Vista. These just gave you search results, un-ordered. What made Google so successful was that they figured out how to rank results based on how other people were linking to them. Further, Google began to adjust that rank for each individual, based on the types of links you subsequently followed, to give you search results that are of most interest to you.

The effect of this is what the Rabbi’s sermon is about. Essentially, Google tells you what you want to hear. Now, that might be fine if you are searching for information on an automobile… but if you are looking for news results, it is a hidden bias you don’t expect. Google’s results subtlely echo what your beliefs are, because you tend to click on results you agree with. As time goes one, what this does is reduce the domain from which you get information: your top results are the sources, likely biased, that confirm what you already knew. You are no longer challenged, and what is worse, you might not even realized you are being fed biased information. This then makes you more radical and hard-line regarding your position, because everything you read says you are right.

It’s subtle. It’s insidious. It’s dangerous. … and most of us don’t realize it’s there.

Rabbi Shawna used her sermon as a stepping point to challenge the congregation that they should use Rosh Hashanah to challenge their beliefs. I’d like you to read her sermon, and take it to heart. When you get results on the web, challenge them. Encourage your circles and friends lists to challenge you. Don’t just hide or ignore those you disagree with; actively engage them. They may learn from you; you may learn from them, and through your arguing, you might actually get a glimmer of the real truth, which is typically somewhere in the middle.

P.S. to geah: This is one reason why, even though we get into frustrating arguments, I treasure your contributions and comments.