Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Blame the search engine for our national stupidity ?

Author Nicholas Carr notes that we may be reading more than ever before. And consumers have benefited enormously, no doubt, from having easy access to information that a decade or two ago would have taken considerable legwork to obtain. We can credit technology for some of this fact - cable modems, wireless phones and fast computers. The rest of the credit goes to Goggle and its development of the modern search engine. Goggle algorithms do a remarkable job of finding and rank ordering information for Web surfers.

But is there a downside to how this information is organized and presented? Carr notes that Goggle finds and rank orders information not on the basis of page views, not on the basis of what you want to see. This approach permits Google to sell more advertising. So, rather than adding to diversity of thought and a wider spectrum of ideas, the search engine is ironically narrowing the searcher's field of vision.

My question is this: What impact is the science of search having on our current (lack of) political discourse and the public's literacy when it comes to current events? We have moved from a nation with a middle class made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents to one that is torn torn by extremism, violence, hatred and bigotry. What were once simple debates are now the subject of verbal combat and roadblocks. (Witness the recent debates in Congress on the deficit.) And we seem to be less informed, or maybe more misinformed is a better term, when it comes to current events.

Carr and other critics are saying the Internet is playing a role here by narrowing (not expanding) the searcher's field of vision. Weren't we all supposed to be better informed? If the Internet has made us so much better informed then why do people believe OBama isn't a U.S. citizen? Or why do Americans believe that corporate taxes need to be slashed when in fact 50% of U.S. companies pay no tax? Obviously the media plays a role here (see Daily Show clip), but what role does the search engine play in shaping public attitudes given what Carr has to say about it?

Please offer your thoughts about what role does the Internet and the science of search play given that our discussion about how search engines tend to narrow-cast the results and make us less informed on national issues. Refer to the Carr articles as necessary to craft your argument(s).


  1. Okay, because my computer has erased my comment three times, I will keep this brief. I think the internet is simply being used as a scapegoat here. The real issue is with society. People are changing. We don't want to read or hear things that go against what we believe to be true and the internet just allows us to do that. Although Google's search science puts ad revenue first, it's a free product. If one wants quality information, go to a library database or heaven forbid pick up a book. I do agree with Carr that people are becoming more polarized and misinformed, but I think that can be fixed. It's our responsibility to remain informed, not the responsibility of someone else.

  2. Having some technical difficulties myself...

    I have to say that I don't think we can blame the internet, or Google, for anything other than providing an outlet of speech for everyone who has access. Why are people more polarized? Who's to say that our nation wasn't this polarized before, but we just didn't know because we all weren't connected by a common medium? Imagine if we had the Internet during the social revolutions of the 1960's and 70's?

    We do tend to see more extreme views on different topics now, and that's because there is a medium for those views, unlike before. Sure, you could find your way into the newspaper a few times, but that content is edited ahead of time, and it's up to the editors whether or not they choose to give this extreme view the time of day.

    The problem lies in the individuals. We, as a society, cannot rely on others to give us the information we think we need. We have to be proactive, and take responsibility for educating ourselves. People believe that Obama isn't a U.S. citizen because they read it on the Internet, and didn't take the time to educate themselves properly.

    Jon Stewart held a "middle of the road" rally around the same time that Glenn Beck held his "conservative" rally in Washington D.C. Stewarts rally gathered over 200,000 supporters, while Beck's only garnered between 78,000 and 96,000 people. There is obviously a great number of Americans in the middle, who don't consider politics to be cutthroat. The only difference is now, the extremely left or right sided views have the platform to share their message.

    It's not up to Google or the Internet to decide what is right for us, it is up to us as individual citizens.

  3. Search algorithms, though they may contribute to streamlined information, are not wholly to blame for public ignorance.

    Humans have agency. The technology we use to obtain information does not necessarily control us. We have the ability, for instance, to look further or to switch our search terms. We, in fact, should obligate ourselves to do that. It’s more a matter of laziness and how easy it is to find niche information that may not allow us to be fully informed.

    A Democrat, for example, who relates to the views of fellow Democrats can and most likely will seek news slanted to their side when they search. A search engine is merely following human commands when it brings up what the searcher asks for. It’s not the technology’s responsibility to flash an “Are you sure you don’t mean “Republican AND Democrat?” message. That’s in the user’s hands.

    Finding further information on a subject can take as little as clicking the “next” button. That’s not much for humans to do, but we chose not to. Perhaps we give search engines too much credit. Most trust what the technology gives back on a first-page basis. What we have to realize is that there are active ways to search. Passive searching is our fault.

    To say that the political environment’s “extremism, violence, hatred and bigotry” is a result of technology is to deny that historically all of those things have always existed. Perhaps search results’ directing to “hot” topics make it more visible, but humans have been scummy toward one another, even without Google.

  4. I enjoy the fact that the first two comments claim problems with the Internet and the fact that B.Evans even said he would keep it short. This just goes to show how Internet has caused trouble for people.

    The Internet and cable news started this viscous cycle of the 24/7 news cycle which I think has been one of the major issues that has gotten people to be so uninformed and also misinformed. I can remember back to 9/11 when my class watched the second tower get hit. In a span of an hour, I heard several different and even conflicting stories. This idea of breaking news is what hurting news consumers are. Most people will listen to the first report then move on because the Internet offers so many other things. It is only if the person really cares about the story, that they would do the research and find the full story.

    I agree that search engines are narrowing the field of vision, because rarely does anyone go past the fourth O in a Google search. It all depends on the algorithms to see what side of a story someone gets. As we have stated in class, Americans are lazy and the Internet offers so many options. This is a bad combination that leads people to be misinformed or less informed.

  5. As I see it, there are two issues to tackle here: technology and U.S. society.

    On the tech side, I absolutely agree with Carr's assessment of the Google algorithms -- they create an echo chamber. Examples: I googled "tea party," and the search results were all sites that support and advocate the Tea Party movement. I googled "green party" (these aren't really opposites), and the search results were all sites that support and advocate the Green Party. No criticism or counterpoint to be had here.

    That's one imperfect example, but I see it happen all the time. How many times have you seen someone post a link to a politically-charged story that contains factual errors or clear bias? Even our smart, educated friends will use their news feeds to further their personal agendas, supporting their arguments by whatever link they find on Google or whatever their favorite blogger says.

    The Internet gives everyone their own soapbox, so it's not hard to predict what will result from that. A lot of shouting, and very little discourse. Blame Internet anonymity for trolls if you'd like, but the narcissism of social media is at work here, too.

    That leads to the second part of the problem, which is more social and not as easy to lambaste as technology. Web developers make the tools for people to be polemic and narcissistic, and web tools certainly contribute to the problem, but they didn't create it. I would argue that these tendencies stem from our individualistic society first, and are aided by a variety of systems I won't even try to tackle here.

    I won't argue that we're divided, but I would like to challenge the idea that we're more divided than ever before. What is the frame of reference for this argument? I might set this as some point through the '80s and '90s, where we saw relatively little internal conflict compared to the decades of tummult in the first half of the 20th century. But we can't forget that society was very politically charged and divided through the '60s and '70s. I wasn't alive, so I don't know how the polemic compares, but I'm sure those eras had their fair share of ignorant activists.

    I think what's truly changed is the erosion of our financial security (or our perception of it) and our increasing interaction with the rest of the world. When we're fat and happy, few complain. When we're insecure, we fight again. This is cyclical, and while technology aids it, the social problems that create this climate are much, much larger and never ending.

  6. The fourth 'O' in a Google search? Anne, you bring up a great point but personally, I rarely go past even the first 'O', which only emphasizes the idea how unreliable a Google search can be. If I don't find what I'm looking for before I scroll down to the end of the first page after a google search, I re-modify my search and try again.

    This method really isn't better but whether a person goes past the fourth "O" or re-modifies a search, this only brings to light the fact how unreliable a search engine can be.

    The problem is not that there is too much information, but there is too much information that is unreliable and THAT is where the problem really infects internet-users.

    For the most part, the internet is unregulated when it comes to the accuracy of information put out there and while this should be a great thing because it allows for unlimited expressions of freedom, it's becoming increasingly obvious that many people lack the discipline to distinguish what is accurate and what is falsified opinion - and you can't blame the readers who read such content because is it really proclaiming ignorance for attempting to research information only to come to a false conclusion put out there by other people?

    No. You can't blame people for being deceived. Not entirely.

    "It's not information overload. It's filter failure." That was the main theme of a thoughtful and influential talk that Clay Shirky gave at a technology conference back in 2008.

    Information is not all equally good so there should always be a point for looking further. It is that probability of error (and it should ALWAYS be considered it is there) in what is searched that should make us continue looking for something even better.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with Beth's comment. Just because the top results on Google pop up first when you conduct a search doesn't necessarily mean that they're the best ones. Take DecorMyEyes.com as an example. That guy, though he's an asshole, has made tons of money off of people's negative feedback. Their complaints have fueled his success.

    The same goes with anything news related, too. If one person starts blogging about a popular subject and it gains enough popularity (via linking, Tweeting, Facebook, whatever), it's quite possible that it will come up higher on Google's search results. I don't think that this is a flaw in Google. I think that people need to be more cautious as to where they get their information, and to not believe the first thing that they read. When it boils down to it, I think some people are either lazy or thrive on gossip, and so they hear what they want to hear without looking for another side of the story. As journalists, it's our job to tell both sides of the story. As news consumers, it's our job to make sure we're getting the facts.

  8. Not really branching out too much from the overriding opinion here but I'm going to echo Brenda in that I believe the Internet and specifically Google are being used as scapegoats. The Internet and Google searches have given people the medium to spread misleading information but it is people who have to be culpable.

    Do any of us really think that educated people like the Hannitys and the Trumps, O'Riellys and Limbaughs think that Obama wasn't born in the U.S.? I'd venture to say no, but they realize that's what some people (their audiences) want to hear so they run with it. Their agendas are to undermine the president and the "Birther" movement is a direct result. The people who believe(d) that are not rational people. They don't deal in facts so it wouldn't matter if a Google search returned nothing but links to a video of the live-birth of Obama in Hawaii with the practicing physician holding up a newspaper from that day along with a birth certificate notarized by Ronald Reagan.

    The same goes for 9/11 conspiracy theorists, the Tea Party extremists or xenophobes who believe the Quran is really the Anarchist's Cookbook for America-hating Muslims. The blame has be be held on the people lending credence through coverage of this hate-filled nonsense. The Tea Party is only relavent because news cycles decide to cover anything and everything they do. Take the Glenn Beck rally vs. Jon Stewart rally example Tyler brought up. It's even more preposterous on a smaller scale yet it seems as if whenever 12 Tea Partiers get together to protest all the "big government" expansion that definitely never happened under Republican or not-black presidents, there are 50 cameras in their faces even if there are 12,000 protesting for the contrary across the street. I know a lot of hyperbole here but bear with me.

    In Canada they have a national statute dubbed as the Radio Act states "a licenser may not broadcast... any false or misleading news." I know that sounds like the most unnecessary and frivolous concept but it has actually prevented FOX News from broadcasting North of the border. Or as it can also be read, the lack of any sort of regulation in the U.S. allows FOX News to broadcast false and misleading news. Now Canada's law isn't perfect, nor was the Fairness Doctrine, but c'mon. Can we maybe do something to make sure there are consequences for knowingly and willingly lying in the news?

    I know this is coming down very hard on right-wingers and there are certainly examples of broadcasters biasing toward left-wing agendas etc. but FOX takes it to another level because they've mastered it. FOX also pretty regularly slays in ratings at least for a number of primetime shows, so there's little to no incentive to change their business model because they're making a big profit.

    That brings us full-circle to the discussion we had earlier in the quarter about profit motives for media outlets in reporting the news. Their goal, just as Googles goal, is to make a profit. Not just "a profit" but the most money they can make. It influences what stories they choose to cover, how they choose to cover them and how the define news. Google searches and the Internet just make it easier. Tangent over.

    If you'll excuse me I'm going to go, I don't know, protest the five-year anniversary of the extinction of the Baiji River Dolphin, or some other bleeding-heart liberal thing.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. I undoubtably agree that most Internet and Google search results are purely unreliable; thanks to the search engine, our nation is unquestionably uninformed and dumb when it comes to gaining insight and information about national politics and current events. I see the search engine like those Bing commercials. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jMt6saTqq4

    I agree with Tyler: although we use technology almost daily, we need to be more proactive and stop relying on the Internet for everything. The amount of reliability we have on Google and the Internet is what's bringing the stupidity of our nation to an all time high; the top searches on Google always seem to praise what we are searching for, providing one side to the story without giving the option for criticism to inform the average citizen on both sides of a story. I don't believe it is Google's fault for failing to inform; we are citizens and journalists with multiple mediums of acquiring information. So why are we only using the Internet? Heaven forbid we make use of a library and all it has to offer.

    So yes, search engines are limiting citizens in information regarding national issues. We need to make use of the resources we have and not rely so heavily on the Internet because clearly, the results are not sufficient enough.

  11. The more I've utilized Google for all my searching needs (which is often -- I mean, does anyone actually use Bing? And when was the last time you Asked Jeeves?), the more I've come to realize that the service can be a bit unreliable, especially following our most recent class.

    However, let me also say that I have never had much of an issue with finding that which I need from Google. Granted, it may not be on the front page of search results, but whatever I need, I generally find eventually and without too much time spent. I guess I'm not saying that it isn't a legitimate issue that should be tackled... just that, in my experiences with Google, I haven't had this issue.

    Google claims that their perfect search engine is an engine that knows precisely what you want, without any error. Clearly this has not been achieved yet and probably never will be, though I do think it's an admirable goal -- if that's really what they're working toward.

    Part of me thinks it might take a new search engine to right all these wrongs. It was said in the article that the only thing that could really dethrone Google is a better engine, plain and simple. If an engine were to come along, one without the current faults that Google possesses, would we still be having this discussion? I wonder if that's what it will take -- a new engine. Then again, will said engine be able to stray away from the ineffectiveness of the current Google? I know next to nothing about this sort of thing, so I couldn't tell you. Maybe I'm just optimistic. I tend to be. Just ask me about the state of the music industry sometime. My opinion there is eerily similar. Huh.

    I guess that's my hope -- if Google isn't going to change, hope for an engine that will, one that will cater to us 'lazy Americans.' Maybe then information won't be as difficult to come by.

  12. The internet and Google are narrowing our field of vision on the internet. Very few people go to the bottom of a Google search and even fewer go to the 2nd and 3rd pages. This means that the majority of people without quality internet experience are settling at the first result and trusting that information as they would a vetted source.

    Also, with Google suggestions, people often do not even finish their searches, but go with the most popular offered by Google. This narrows the field of vision greatly because people end up reading the same pieces that are at the top of these very popular searches.

    Ultimately, it isn't up to Google to be a socially responsible company but it is up to the people to become socially aware. Google will always have profit motives but that does not mean it is useless. When used well, searchers can find great information there and apply it to their lives.

    I believe that Cable News corporations are still majorly to blame for misinformation because they still are the #1 source for news. If people go to the internet to find varying voices and more information on the topic, then that's awesome.

  13. I'll echo what most have said in that it's true that most won't look past the first four pages or so (maybe even less) when looking for information. I also agree that it really isn't Google's fault. I think the thing we need to keep in mind is that Google is a business. The system Google uses makes the company money and that's what they're out there to do.

  14. I think everyone has already said that the internet and Google are not helping searchers, but simply harming them. As journalists, we have the added characteristic of wanting to back up our sources and check to make sure that what is said is actually true.
    As searchers and internet users, we can't simply blame something that we don't understand. Knowing how Google uses its search algorithm helps in knowing how much deeper to actually look for something that we can trust.
    As time goes on and people start to learn how Google works then maybe people will be more inclined to further search for trusted sources on issues that are important to our country and its well-being.

  15. Once again though, I would not that Google is a company. There is no public service obligation of Google. I would say that the majority of users are pleased and blissfully ignorant to any search related sufferings.

    It could be argued that we should be thankful for the fact that Google at least attempts to filter their searches with our interest in mind. I understand they have to cater to consumers still, but the consumer has no right to be all up in arms about a faulty or biased search. The consumer has a choice to use a given search engine. There are several alternatives and some of those alternatives are highly credible.

    It depends on what the consumer puts a premium on. Relative accuracy and speed at a low cost is what Google does. They can go to the library at a higher time cost or use a paid search engine for a tangible cost if they want to ensure their search results are as well-directed as possible.

  16. Great TED video just posted on the "filter bubble" phenomenon: http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html