Whether you know it or not, youâre probably living in a bubble. As far as the internet is concerned, at least.
Your internet search results may look very different depending based on your political views and other cultural interests. Searching for hot button political topics like âgun control,â âimmigration,â and âvaccinationâ bring up very different results depending on your search history, according to a study from privacy company and Google rival DuckDuckGo released Tuesday.
The study examined the results of different users searching the same terms and found they varied widely. In the case of searching the term âgun control,â one participant saw the pro-gun organization the National Rifle Association in the top news results while another did not get any results including the NRA. Two were served pages from Wikipedia.org as the first or second result while one did not see any Wikipedia links in the first nine results.
âUndecided and inquisitive voters turn to search engines to conduct basic research on candidates and issues.â
Pull quote: âUndecided and inquisitive voters turn to search engines to conduct basic research on candidates and issues.â âDuckDuckGo report
DuckDuckGo researchers said this bubble can be âparticularly perniciousâ when searching for political topics.â Thatâs because undecided and inquisitive voters turn to search engines to conduct basic research on candidates and issues in the critical time when they are forming their opinions on the,â the study said. âIf theyâre getting information that is swayed to one side because of their personal filter bubbles, then this can have a significant effect on political outcomes in aggregate.â
Â and other tech platforms including Facebook
Â have been scrutinized in light of the 2016 election over how their algorithms order results and insulate people with like-minded views.
In August, President Donald Trump tweeted complaining that Google is against Republicans, apparently commenting on a story that CNN and other so-called âliberalâ media outlets dominated the top search results when the word âTrumpâ is Googled.
In the study, DuckDuckGo examined results for 87 participants including 76 on desktop and 11 on mobile and found 92% of users saw unique or results that varied from person to person when Googling vaccinations, 63% saw unique results when Googling âimmigration,â and 59% saw unique results when Googling âgun control.â
The percentages were comparable even when the user searched in âincognito mode,â which does not collect user data.The study was limited to the U.S. to avoid differing search indexes in different countries.
Google said tracking is only part of the story
A Google spokeswoman told MarketWatch personalization called the results âflawedâ and said tracking or personalization is not the sole reason for different search results. She said changes in location or even seconds between searches can impact results and their order. Google said it does not personalize âTop Storiesâ in Search or content in the News tab in Search.
However, DuckDuckGo researchers claim to have controlled for this and found even when people searched at the same time they got different results.
Changes in location or even seconds between searches can impact results and their order.
Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott called the results âdeeply troublingâ for consumers. âI think it was already common knowledge that our search results were being manipulated,â he said. âBut this study shows you canât escape these results even if youâre in âincognito mode.ââ
Incognito mode is the private browsing window Google offers users to surf the web without being tracked. The study found the incognito results were just as varied as those in normal search, suggesting Google is allegedly tailoring those results as well.
âPeople should not be lulled into a false sense of security that so-called âincognitoâ mode makes them anonymous,â the study said.
Jennifer Golbeck, a professor at University of Maryland College of Information studies said that in some ways these processes are designed to improve user experience, but that doesnât mean they canât be harmful.
âOn one hand, these algorithms are driven by what we click on and scroll past â they are showing people what it seems like they want to see,â she said. âOn the other hand, this can hide a lot of information that we may not even know about.â
Here are ways to limit your own âbubbleâ
1. Try another browser where you are not signed in to Google. Repeat your searches and compare results.
2. If you do not want to have your results personalized, search without being logged in to Google or to Chrome. There may still be some filtering, but itâs more limited.
3. Try another search engine. DuckDuckGo or a VPN to disguise your location is an alternative that say they donât track users or use their search history in this way.
4. On Google, you can go to Settings – Advanced – Privacy and Security, you can âclear browsing dataâ and prevent Google from collecting browsing history.
5. You can opt out of a âdo not trackâ request when browsing online, which requests that companies do not to keep your data when you visit their sites.
5. Download a trusted extension like PrivacyBadger, offered by privacy nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, to further limit the amount of data kept on you.
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