Students make use of the Google search engine in their everyday life. They use it for not only browsing, but also when researching for academic papers. The information they receive and use can be of large importance to the accuracy of their work. However, most do not know what is behind the algorithm that drives the information and trust it blindly without asking any questions.
Leo (20), student at King’s College London, says that he uses the Google search engine daily to better understand his university readings. He also talked to the importance of Google in his private life as he uses the search engine when it comes to deciding on what movie to watch and where to go out with friends. This demonstrates the integral role that Google plays in the life of a student, both personal and professional.
“Yes, I know that the there is an algorithm working inside the search engine on Google but I have not thought about the intricacies of how it works.”
Leo (20) – Physics student from Ireland at King’s College London
Despite the algorithm that is used by google having a major impact on the decisions that Leo makes on a daily basis he was completely unaware of how it works. Leo is not the only person who feels this way, Jack and Riccardo (19/20), say that they also have no idea how it works. This demonstrates the blind trust for the information that is presented and the belief that it is correct and free from biases.
Google sees the algorithm, in question, as a tool which is there to help people understand the hundred billions of different webpages on the Internet. The search engine parses all the pages and only returns the most relevant results to the user. This is done through a variety of different algorithms which play an essential part in this process because they are able to look at different factors related to the query from the words used in the query, relevance and usability of pages, expertise of sources and the location of the search query according to the Google webpage about this topic
Only Google truly understands their algorithm and how the different aspects of usability of page and location of search query relate to one another, one has to ask themselves if it such a good thing that students like Leo are giving something they do not understand that much power over them?
There are a variety of critics when it comes to the power Google has. One of those critiques is Donald Trump who has criticised Google and its search engine and the mystery behind it. He believes that the Google search engine is out to get him. This is due to his belief that there is a bias on the side of the algorithm, and the company in general, when it comes to conservative media outlets and conservative parties and especially his own persona. He even shared a video of a former Google employee talking to Fox News about how people at Google where in tears when Trump’s election victory was announced.
However, it is not just the president of the US who distrusts Google, but also students have trust issues when it comes to the Google. Claudia, a music student from Hong Kong, gave an account of her unique experience with Google when asked about it. She said that the Google algorithm might be good for some people but not for her because it was affecting her studies. In her opinion, the Google algorithm was showing a racial bias when it came to her search queries. She found this when she was doing research for a project on Chinese musician for her course. She was not able to find any information on Asian musicians for her project on Google which made it very difficult for her to finish her work. She further explained, that her fellow students did not have problems when looking for musicians from other background for their projects.
It’s white-washed! Finding Asian artists on Google is almost impossible when they are so under-represented online.
Claudia (21) – Music student from Hong Kong at King’s College London
Claudia’s example is, however, not the only example where people believe to have stumbled upon a racial bias inside the Google algorithm. Richard Dawkins pointed out in one of tweets that when people searched for “Trança Feia” (ugly braids) on Google they were shown pictures of black woman. While when they looked for “Trança Bonita” (pretty braids) it showed them white women.
These examples raise the question how Google has dealt with those different biases in their algorithm? On the one hand, when it comes to the political biases, a Google spokesperson said that it would be against their mission as a company to use the search engine to distort results for political benefit because they see themselves to be on a mission to provide helpful information to all users. Moreover, research by The Economist shows, that Google is currently making use of Pulitzer-Prize winners and fact-checkers when it comes to the news displayed on the search engine. However, the Economist also says that if the people who are checking the news have biases themselves the algorithm will also represent the same biases.
On the other hand, there has not been any statement released by Google when it comes to the topic of racial biases on their search engine and how something like this is able to happen. A possible reason for the racial bias happening on the search engine might be similar to why a bias against right-wing sources might be found inside the algorithm. That is that, the people who write the algorithms themselves might have implicit biases which are then represented in the algorithm and thus found in the search results of people like Claudia from Kings College London.
So, if Google won’t change their algorithm or even acknowledge the problem what can be done by the users of the application? An example of how one can deal with this is seen in the case of Riccardo, another student at Kings College London, who says that when he looks for information on a topic he does not only use Google but he also makes use of other platforms to be certain that he does not become a victim of the algorithmic biases of Google. This might be the right mind-set when talking about how people should engage with Google in the future, which is that they should not solely rely on Google, like Leo does, but rather make use of several platforms, like Riccardo, and thus be sure to not fall under the bias of the Google algorithm.