Misinformation in search engines: how it spreads and how to spot it
How does misinformation spread in search engines?
We often associate misinformation with fake news spread on social media. As algorithms favor high-engagement posts, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms are fertile ground for false information. It doesn’t help that users can easily share and spread further enticing but false articles.
But misinformation is not solely a social media issue. By accounting for an estimated 30% of news searches (according to a Pew Research Center study), search engines are also great propagators of fake news. Recommendation algorithms of services like Google are said to rely on factors like Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T quality standard), yet it’s more complicated than that.
As per information science researcher Chirag Shah, the primary mechanisms of search engine misinformation don’t differ that much from social media misinformation. Here's how it works:
- Let’s say a relatively known website publishes inaccurate articles about a sensitive topic like health or finance. You find this content while browsing on your search engine, and as you find this content entertaining regardless of its relevance you keep reading it.
- As you click on the result and show high engagement, Google or other search engine services will infer that this website content is relevant to you. Their algorithm will favor the display of this type of content and rank them higher on the results of related keywords.
- As this piece of content is now ranked higher, more and more users click on this piece of content, engage in it, which reinforces Google’s algorithms decisions even further.
- As a result, a significant number of search-engine users will consume and share this false information. This positive loop feedback is creating misinformation at scale.
To counter these mechanisms, Google relies on a domain authority score that factors in the age of the domain, the quality of backlinks, and published content. But that’s not enough to filter false information, especially on trending or complex topics.
There are some significant cases of search-engines misinformation that can get you a clearer picture of the phenomenon and help you be more cautious.
Examples of search engine misinformation
Apart from Google Search, these feedback mechanisms also apply to other search engine platforms. Let’s see some concrete examples of fake news propagation on various websites:
We have described how misinformation spreads on Google Search, but let’s take a real example. In 2018, a Facebook post wrongly claimed that a new deadly spider species spread in the US and had caused death in some states.
This post gained so much attention that many users typed the query “new deadly spiders’ on search engines. When analyzing the results, researchers found that almost half of these results were linked to content supporting or sharing this false news. Google Search was ranking them higher based on their stronger engagement.
Misinformation can also appear on Google featured snippets. These informational banners contain selected extracts from articles to address user questions. Some can share incomplete quotes that can be misinterpreted, or confirm false assumptions about people or events. For example, until recently Google provided an exact date when you typed “when did snoopy assassinate Abraham Lincoln”.
Now, these snippets are providing more context, and Google is making an effort to point out false premises. They are also implementing “about this source” visual features to inform readers about what people are saying about the visited website.
Google News and Discovery
Google News and Discovery are other types of Google services that provide users with personalized news. Compared to Google Search, they aggregate news from various sources and select them based on their viewing performance. These recommended content are also prominently featured on Google Search results. The combination between Google Search, News, and Discovery can give even more exposure and credibility to misleading and unverified stories.
For example, a French news outlet InfoduJour achieved to feature inaccurate articles about COVID-19 vaccines on Google News and Discovery. Thanks to its increased visibility, the website recorded up to 3.2 million unique visitors in one month. They also appeared on Google Search ranking on keywords related to vaccine unreliability. So, until Google banned some of their stories, they got a lot of coverage.
As YouTube is the second most visited search engine in the world, many users are using it to inform themselves about specific topics and issues. As its search engine is considerably more influenced by past user behavior and preferences than Google Search, it is particularly vulnerable to waves of misinformation. Conspiracy theories, inaccurate health and political information are readily visible to users showing past preferences for this type of content.
For example, during the pandemic, approximately 11% of YouTube’s most viewed videos on COVID-19 vaccines contradicted information from official health sources. This is even more alarming as YouTube ranking can also favor better Google Search video ranking. YouTube has promised to put more effort into moderating controversial and misleading videos, but there’s still a long way to go.
TikTok is also increasingly used as a primary source of information for younger generations. According to a Pew Research Center study, almost 40% of generation Z users said preferring researching on TikTok to Google. Yet, for example, medical stories and advice found there are often unfounded and unverified. Last year, a lot of false stories about COVID-19 were surfacing on social media. When you were searching “vaccine Covid-19” on TikTok search engines, the first results were suggesting content around COVID vaccine injury.” Now, TikTok provides you with more reliable content and access to fact-checking dedicated centers. But there are still many videos that are sharing false claims about sensitive topics.
How to spot misinformation cases on search feeds?
Search engine's misinformation is a real threat to informed decision-making and debates. How to detect them and signal them before it’s too late? There are some best practices that you can follow to spot them while browsing:
#1 Examining the website and domain
When you click on a search engine result, one of the first best practices might be to examine the website domain's reliability. Is it a verified, official, or well-known source? Is it a less-popular or weirdly named website?
You can look on the “about” section of the website, or type the name of the domain to see what people are saying about it. This will ensure that you know who are giving you this information, what’s their expertise and motivation, and whether you can trust them. You’ll also be able to check for scammers or spammers beforehand.
#2 Getting back to original sources or related references
To prevent yourself from search engine misinformation, you can also look for the primary sources of the claim. Which individual or organization’s statement is the website’s story relying on? Have they involved verified journalists, media outlets, or official spokespersons? Have they quoted recognized researchers, physicians, or people with no prior knowledge or expertise in the subject? The reliability of the claim always equals the quality of the primary source.
Another preventive measure is to always visit several search-engine results to look for contradicting statements. You should always compare different sources of information to make your own conclusions and support your personal and professional decisions.
#3 Signaling fake claims
Once you’ve realized some mismatch between the found claim and verified sources, you might signal the misleading content to the search engine platform. For example, on Google, you can click on the “send feedback” or “report a bug” feature to report misinformation. Google might thereafter flag the website result as unreliable if there is enough evidence for its falsity.
#4 Using a fact-checking tool
There’s so much fake news spreading online, why not be able to detect them automatically? Fact-checking tools enable you to spot and signal any type of inaccurate or deceiving content. For example, Google has designed its own verification tool called Google Fact check explorer. You can type a topic, and it will display all related fake news currently spreading online. It will also provide you with facts from verified sources and websites.
Buster.AI: automatic search-engines fact-checking
Buster.AI automated fact-checking app enables you to verify any claim found from the get-to-go.
As a deep-learning-powered fact-checking app, Buster.AI can understand sentences, connect them to trusted sources, and provide you with a reliability score.
By submitting your content found on search engines in the Buster.AI app, you can determine a matching score between this content and trusted sources or documents. These features also work with groups of text documents and can rely on predefined sources.
Book a demo with Buster.AI and prevent yourself from search-engine misinformation!