Last weekend, in the hours after a deadly Texas church shooting, Google search promotedfalse reports about the suspect, suggesting that he was a radical communist affiliated with the antifa movement. The claims popped up in Google’s “Popular on Twitter” module, which made them prominently visible — although not the top results — in a search for the alleged killer’s name. Of course, the was just the latest instance of a long-standing problem: it was the latest of multiple similar missteps. As usual, Google promised to improve its search results, while the offending tweets disappeared. But telling Google to retrain its algorithms, as appropriate as that demand is, doesn’t solve the bigger issue: the search engine’s monopoly on truth.
Surveys suggest that, at least in theory, very few people unconditionally believe news from social media. But faith in search engines — a field long dominated by Google — appears consistently high. A 2017 Edelman survey found that 64 percent of respondents trusted search engines for news and information, a slight increase from the 61 percent who did in 2012, and notably more than the 57 percent who trusted traditional media. (Another 2012 survey, from Pew Research Center, found that 66 percent of people believed search engines were “fair and unbiased,” almost the same proportion that did in 2005.) Researcher danah boyd has suggested that media literacy training conflated doing independent research with using search engines. Instead of learning to evaluate sources, “[students] heard that Google was trustworthy and Wikipedia was not.”
Google encourages this perception, as do competitors like Amazon and Apple — especially as their products depend more and more on virtual assistants. Though Google’s text-based search page is clearly a flawed system, at least it makes it clear that Google search functions as a directory for the larger internet — and at a more basic level, a useful tool for humans to master.
Google Assistant turns search into a trusted companion dispensing expert advice. The service has emphasized the idea that people shouldn’t have to learn special commands to “talk” to a computer, and demos of products like Google Home show off Assistant’s prowess at analyzing the context of simple spoken questions, then guessing exactly what users want. When bad information inevitably slips through, hearing it authoritatively spoken aloud is even more jarring than seeing it on a page.