Citizen science project explores search engine secrets

Do search engines influence you more than you think? Now is your chance to help QUT researchers find out.

In 2020, Google processed more than 3.5 billion searches a day – and Forbes Magazine reports that most people see search engines as the most trusted source of information. But not all searches produce the same results.

Search engines adjust their recommendations to suit our interests. The big question is how such personalisation can influence our decisions on anything from where to holiday to whether we get a COVID-19 vaccine.

The new QUT-led Australian Search Experience project aims to find out. It invites Australian Internet users to join the project as citizen scientists, and download a simple browser plugin to their computer. To install the plugin, simply go to https://www.admscentre.org.au/searchexperience/ and follow the instructions.

The plugin runs regular searches for common search terms, and reports the results back to the research project. Across thousands of participants, these individual data donations produce a comprehensive picture of what search results different Australians encounter. The plugin won’t transmit any private data at any time.

The project is a partnership between researchers from Australian universities within the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making + Society (ADM+S) and the international research and advocacy organisation AlgorithmWatch.

Chief investigator Professor Axel Bruns, an internationally renowned Internet researcher in QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre awarded an Australian Laureate Fellowship earlier this month, said the project explores whether search engines have the potential to create ‘filter bubbles’ or to promote misinformation and disinformation.

“There is a lot of speculation about the impact search engines have on the information we encounter. But we really know very little about how they order and display that information,” said Professor Bruns, whose most recent book is Are Filter Bubbles Real?

“Search engine personalisation may be influencing your search results and consequently shaping what you know of the world. This can affect personal decisions as well as collective decisions as a society – from how we spend our money to who we vote for, and to our attitudes on critical issues like the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

“If you wonder why your search results may differ from those of a friend, colleague or family member, then we’d like you to participate in this project.

“Modern digital news and media platforms use automated decision-making systems intensively, but rarely reveal how their systems work. We need a way to independently assess the recommendations of search engines, which is why we are running this citizen science project.”

Professor Bruns said the Australian Search Experience project would study the personalisation of search results for critical news and information, across key platforms including Google and YouTube, based on the profiles these platforms establish for their different users.

“The project will provide an independent assessment of how search engines shape the flow of information and public discourse for Australians. We will regularly share our findings with the public,” he said.

“To become a citizen scientist contributing to the project, users just need to install the browser plugin on their computer. Detailed instructions are available at https://www.admscentre.org.au/searchexperience/.

“As part of the process, participants will be asked for some basic demographic details, but nothing that can be used to re-identify individuals. The searches will all happen in the background with minimal disruption to the users, and the plugin does not capture any private data.”

Visit www.admscentre.org.au/searchexperience

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