Whether you know it or not, you’re probably living in a bubble. As far as the internet is concerned, at least.
Your internet search results may look very different depending based on your political views and other cultural interests. Searching for hot-button political topics like “gun control,” “immigration” and “vaccination” bring up very different results depending on your search history, according to a study from privacy company and Google rival DuckDuckGo released Tuesday.
The study examined the results of different users searching the same terms and found they varied widely. In the case of searching the term “gun control,” one participant saw the pro-gun organization the National Rifle Association in the top news results while another did not get any results including the NRA. Two were served pages from Wikipedia.org as the first or second result while one did not see any Wikipedia links in the first nine results.
DuckDuckGo researchers said this bubble can be “particularly pernicious” when searching for political topics. “That’s because undecided and inquisitive voters turn to search engines to conduct basic research on candidates and issues in the critical time when they are forming their opinions,” the study said. “If they’re getting information that is swayed to one side because of their personal filter bubbles, then this can have a significant effect on political outcomes in aggregate.”
Google and other tech platforms including Facebook have been scrutinized in light of the 2016 election over how their algorithms order results and insulate people with like-minded views.
In August, President Donald Trump tweeted complaining that Google is against Republicans, apparently commenting on a story that CNN and other so-called “liberal” media outlets dominated the top search results when the word “Trump” is Googled.
In the study, DuckDuckGo examined results for 87 participants including 76 on desktop and 11 on mobile and found 92 percent of users saw unique results or results that varied from person to person when Googling vaccinations, 63 percent saw unique results when Googling “immigration,” and 59 percent saw unique results when Googling “gun control.”
The percentages were comparable even when the user searched in “incognito mode,” which does not collect user data. The study was limited to the US to avoid differing search indexes in different countries.
Google said tracking is only part of the story
A Google spokeswoman told MarketWatch the results were “flawed” and said tracking or personalization is not the sole reason for different search results. She said changes in location or even seconds between searches can impact results and their order. Google said it does not personalize “Top Stories” in Search or content in the News tab in Search.
However, DuckDuckGo researchers claim to have controlled for this and found even when people searched at the same time, they got different results.
Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott called the results “deeply troubling” for consumers. “I think it was already common knowledge that our search results were being manipulated,” he said. “But this study shows you can’t escape these results even if you’re in ‘incognito mode.’”
Incognito mode is the private browsing window Google offers users to surf the web without being tracked. The study found the incognito results were just as varied as those in normal search, suggesting Google is allegedly tailoring those results as well.
“People should not be lulled into a false sense of security that so-called ‘incognito’ mode makes them anonymous,” the study said.
Jennifer Golbeck, a professor at the University of Maryland College of Information studies, said that in some ways, these processes are designed to improve user experience, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be harmful.
“On one hand, these algorithms are driven by what we click on and scroll past — they are showing people what it seems like they want to see,” she said. “On the other hand, this can hide a lot of information that we may not even know about.”