Study warns of potential dangers of misinformation dominating search engine results

The study, published in the prestigious journal Nature, suggests that this outcome may be attributed to the output of search engines, especially for individuals who are presented with lower-quality information. Lead author Kevin Aslett, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida, and a faculty research affiliate at CSMaP, warns about the potential dangers of “data voids” – areas where misinformation dominates the information ecosystem. This can lead to a scarcity of credible information or, even more concerning, the prominence of non-credible information at the top of search results.

According to Zeve Sanderson, the founding executive director of New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics (CSMaP) and one of the study’s authors, their research demonstrates that searching online to evaluate news actually increases belief in popular misinformation, and by significant margins.

To investigate the impact of online search engines on false or misleading views, the researchers conducted a series of five experiments. They recruited participants through Qualtrics and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, commonly used tools in behavioral science studies. The goal was to understand the influence of a common behavior – searching online to evaluate news (SOTEN).

The first four studies explored various aspects of online search behavior and its impact:

The effect of SOTEN on belief in both false and true news within two days of an article’s publication. False popular articles included stories on topics such as COVID-19 vaccines, the Trump impeachment proceedings, and climate events.

Whether SOTEN could change an individual’s evaluation of a news story after they had already assessed its veracity.

The long-term effect of SOTEN, months after publication.

The effect of SOTEN on recent news about a significant topic with extensive news coverage – in this case, news related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the fifth study, the researchers combined a survey with web-tracking data to examine the impact of exposure to both low- and high-quality search-engine results on belief in misinformation.

By analysing search results collected through a custom web browser plug-in, the researchers could determine how the quality of these results influenced users’ belief in the misinformation they were evaluating. The credibility ratings of the study’s sources were determined using NewsGuard, a browser extension that rates news and information sites to help users assess their trustworthiness.

Across all five studies, the authors discovered a significant increase in belief in misinformation as a result of searching online to evaluate news. This effect was observed regardless of whether the misinformation was recently published or months old. These findings indicate that the passage of time does not diminish the impact of SOTEN on the likelihood of believing false news stories.

Additionally, the fifth study revealed that this phenomenon was more pronounced among individuals who were exposed to lower-quality information from search engines.

Joshua A. Tucker, professor of politics and co-director of CSMaP, another author of the study, emphasizes the importance of media literacy programs grounded in empirically tested interventions. He also urges search engines to invest in solutions to address the challenges highlighted by this research.

This study provides valuable insights into the influence of online search behavior on the spread of misinformation. It highlights the need for individuals to critically evaluate the information they encounter online and for search engines to prioritize the delivery of high-quality and credible content.