By Stuart A. Thompson, The New York Times Company
On an episode of Joe Rogan’s popular podcast last year, he turned to a topic that has gripped right-wing communities and other Americans who feel skeptical about the pandemic: search engines.
“If I wanted to find specific cases about people who died from vaccine-related injuries, I had to go to DuckDuckGo,” Rogan said, referring to the small, privacy-focused search engine. “I wasn’t finding them on Google.”
Praise for DuckDuckGo has become a popular refrain during the pandemic among right-wing social media influencers and conspiracy theorists who question COVID-19 vaccines and push discredited coronavirus treatments. Some have posted screenshots showing that DuckDuckGo appears to surface more links favorable to their views than Google does.
In addition to Rogan, who has recently been at the center of an outcry about misinformation on his podcast, the search engine has received ringing endorsements from some of the world’s most-downloaded conservative podcasters, including Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino.
“Google is actively suppressing search results that don’t acquiesce to traditional viewpoints of the left,” Shapiro claimed in March 2021. “I recommend you install DuckDuckGo on your computer, rather than Google, to combat all this.”
The endorsements underscore how right-wing Americans and conspiracy theorists are shifting their online activity in response to greater moderation from tech giants like Google. They have increasingly embraced fledgling and sometimes fringe platforms like the chat app Telegram, the video streamer Rumble and even search engines like DuckDuckGo, seeking conditions that seem more favorable to their conspiracy theories and falsehoods.
That attention has put search engines in a difficult position, fielding queries from a growing set of Americans who seem increasingly gripped by conspiracy theories. They must now try to deliver relevant results for obscure search terms and avoid surfacing possible misinformation, all while steering clear of censorship claims.
DuckDuckGo, which has about 3% of the United States search market, holds little direct control over the links in its search results because they are generated by the search engine algorithm provided by Bing, which Microsoft owns. And all search engine algorithms are considered black boxes because the companies that create them do not completely disclose what informs their decisions.
In a statement, DuckDuckGo said it condemned “acts of disinformation” and said the company’s internal surveys showed that its users had a wide mix of political orientations. The company said it was also studying ways to limit the spread of false and misleading information.
For a glimpse at what conspiracy theorists encounter when they search online, The New York Times reviewed the top 20 search results on Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo for more than 30 conspiracy theories and right-wing topics. Search results can change over time and vary among users, but the comparisons provide a snapshot of what a single user might have seen on a typical day in mid-February.
For many terms, Bing and DuckDuckGo surfaced more untrustworthy websites than Google did, when results were compared with website ratings from the Global Disinformation Index, NewsGuard and research published in the journal Science. (While DuckDuckGo relies on Bing’s algorithm, their search results can differ.)
Search results on Google also included some untrustworthy websites, but they tended to be less common and lower on the search page.
The Times then reviewed a selection of those terms to check whether the content on the linked pages advanced the conspiracy theory or not. Those comparisons often showed even sharper differences between Google and its competitors.
Those findings matched results from two recent studies, which concluded that Bing’s algorithm surfaced content more supportive of conspiracy theories than Google did.
Differences among search engines in The Times’ analysis were clearest when the terms were specific. For instance, searching for “Satanist Democrats,” a theory that Democrats worship Satan or perform satanic rituals, surfaced several links advancing the conspiracy theory. But searching for more established claims, like the “QAnon” movement or terms unrelated to conspiracies, surfaced more trustworthy results from all search engines.
The role of search engines has grown as online conspiracy theorists have placed more value on what they call “doing your research,” which involves digging for content online to deepen conspiracy theories rather than relying on mainstream news outlets or government sources.
“Research, research, research,” a Telegram user wrote in a channel devoted to fighting vaccine mandates. “Stay AWAY from Google searches, only use DuckDuckGo.”
When people hunt for new information online, they tend to hold those findings in higher regard, said Ronald E. Robertson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Internet Observatory who has studied search engines.
“It’s a lot more convincing to look up information, find it and feel that sense of discovery about it,” he said. “You don’t really feel like someone’s telling you what the truth is, like you might on social media.”
DuckDuckGo said it “regularly” flagged problematic search terms with Bing so they could be addressed. After The Times shared some data on search results for numerous terms spread by conspiracy theorists, several of the search results changed entirely, shifting to favor more trustworthy sources.
“Finding the right balance between delivering authoritative results that match the intent of a search query and protecting users from being misled is a very challenging problem,” Bing said in a statement. “We won’t always get that balance just right, but that’s our goal.”
Kamyl Bazbaz, vice president of communications for DuckDuckGo, said that its results were often similar to Google’s and that most search terms reviewed by The Times received nearly no traffic.
While Google tended to surface links from trustworthy news sources more often, Bazbaz said adding a few more keywords to any given search usually surfaced the misleading information on Google anyway.
“If you’re looking for this stuff, no matter where you’re searching for it, you can find it,” he said.
Other research has also found that Bing’s algorithm surfaces less trustworthy information than Google does when searching for conspiracy theories. One study last year showed that slightly fewer than half of all results on Bing and DuckDuckGo for six popular conspiracy theories mentioned or promoted the ideas. Google fared better, with about one-quarter of links mentioning the ideas but nearly none supporting them. Yahoo fared worse than Bing and DuckDuckGo, and the Russian search engine Yandex fared worst among the group.
Newer and more esoteric conspiracy theories are far more likely to return misleading results because of the so-called data void. Conspiracy theorists tend to publish content about new ideas long before mainstream sources, dominating search results as the terms begin spreading online. Other topics never grab the attention of mainstream sources, giving the conspiracy theorists a long-term presence in search results.
Search engines have long been criticized for failing to address data voids. That criticism increased during the 2016 presidential election, when the spread of misleading and false news stories caused growing alarm among misinformation watchdogs. Around the same time, Google users noticed that a search for “did the Holocaust happen” surfaced a white supremacist website as its top result. Google tweaked its algorithm in response, now weighing a website’s reliability to a greater extent, alongside the content’s relevance to the search term.
Since 2021, Google has also automatically added warning boxes stating that “results are changing quickly” for terms that gain sudden popularity.
That warning appeared after Dr. Robert Malone, an infectious disease researcher, appeared on “The Joe Rogan Experience” late last year. In that interview, Malone raised the discredited idea of mass formation psychosis, which describes a kind of groupthink mentality that supposedly persuaded the public to support pandemic countermeasures.
After the show, interest in the search term exploded, and the warning label appeared on Google’s results. Malone’s fans quickly claimed Google had targeted the term and removed links or edited the search results.
In a statement, Google said, “There is no merit to the suggestion that search results were manually edited.” But the company added that its algorithm would automatically adjust itself in some cases, shifting to rank trustworthy links higher than more relevant ones.
To combat data voids, search engines have also peppered their search results with information boxes surfacing more trustworthy information, like news carousels showing articles from trusted media sources higher in the search results. DuckDuckGo said it was working with researchers at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy to study how to mitigate disinformation through information boxes and “instant answers,” which the company already uses to augment results from Bing’s search algorithm.
Daniel Bush, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Internet Observatory, warned that the automated nature of search engines meant that conspiracy theorists would continue to prey on data voids to promote misleading information online.
“The data void is the key problem at the core of this technology, and there’s no algorithm that can fix it,” said Bush, who analyzed search results in 2019 and showed misinformation was more prevalent on Bing than on Google. “The more automated things become, the more vulnerable we are.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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