Is Google feeding confirmation bias?

snippetIn its ongoing effort to answer the world’s questions (and sell ads), Google has been putting increased emphasis on its “featured snippets” – the little boxes of text extracted from whatever source Google has calculated to be most relevant. If I want to see whether my dogs can catch the flu, I can quickly see that, yes, it’s possible.

However, a recent Wall Street Journal article (“Google Has Picked an Answer for You—Too Bad It’s Often Wrong“) looked at the increased frequency of these quick answers that appear at the top of search results. (Note that these are not the Knowledge Panels, which are sourced from Wikipedia and other neutral sources.)

According to a study commissioned by the WSJ, these featured snippets are often excerpted from unreliable or biased sources. Google’s algorithm favors a web site with text that most exactly matches the query; as a result, the researchers found that the extracted text was more likely to come from a less-authoritative, biased or dodgy clickbait site.

Worse yet, since featured snippets are designed to closely match the query, they can feed confirmation bias. The featured snippet for the query “is milk good for you” says “Milk can be good for the bones because it provides vitamin D and calcium…” The featured snippet for the search “is milk bad for you” says “Animal milk has long been claimed as the go-to source of calcium by the dairy industry, but as it turns out, milk is bad for you .”

Since most people have been trained by Google to trust the first answer that appears, it’s even more important to practice some information hygiene before relying on the first answer from a search engine.

Do you trust that news?

skeptical woman looking over her glassesIn its ongoing efforts to address the scourge of misleading and false news, Google recently announced a new feature that helps readers evaluate a news source they may not be familiar with. Now,  when you search for a particular publication, the Knowledge Panel – that preformatted answers box that often appears at the top of search results – includes information about that publisher.

Depending on the publication, that can include awards they have won, the topics they cover most extensively and their political alignment. If content from the publication has recently been reviewed by an authoritative fact-checker, those items are also featured in the Knowledge Panel. [UPDATED: This seems to work in Google Chrome and Safari, but not Firefox. Thanks, Pam Wren, for the heads up!]

So, for example, if you Google “Wall Street Journal”, your search results page will include a Knowledge Panel like this:

wsj

You’ll see a one-sentence blurb from the Wikipedia article about the newspaper, links to professional awards for reporting, and a summary of the topics they have recently covered — in the case of the Wall Street Journal, that’s the Federal Reserve, advertising, sales and taxes… about right for a newspaper described as business-focused.

And if you Google “Breitbart”, your search results page will include a Knowledge Panel like this:

breitbart

If you click the link for “Writes About”, you’ll see that Breitbart has recently covered Donald Trump, Barack Obama, the Republican Party and Hillary Clinton… what you might expect from what the Wikipedia article describes as a “far-right American news, opinion and commentary website”. But note the “Reviewed Claims” tab, highlighting reported facts that were then determined to be false by fact-checkers like Snopes, Politifact and FactCheck. This stands out as a concern — most news sources’ Knowledge Panels don’t include lists of reported facts that were questioned and reviewed by fact-checking sites.

This is a great way for librarians and information professionals to instill a little FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) when their clients assume that whatever they see on their Facebook feed is reliable. And check out Vanessa Otero’s infographic, What, Exactly, Are We Reading?,  a nice chart of where various media sources fall, both in terms of reliability/fabrication and liberal/conservative.