A tool developed by two researchers shows how the difference in language and search location shows significantly different results. Along the way, they demonstrate the limits of the information we are exposed to through what on paper sounds like a “neutral” tool.
The search engines we use have become a huge and inexhaustible source of information, with the most popular search engine in the world – Google – claiming to populate “more information than any other directory in the world”. But what results will you get when you search for identical concepts around the world? A new tool examines this question precisely, to examine the invisible boundaries of information in which we operate – and how search engines leave us within them.
The differences that illustrate the limits of information
A team of researchers has developed a tool called Search Atlas that examines how our searches show different results in different areas. For example how a search for the word ‘God’ yields significantly different results in a search in countries like the United States, Muslim countries like the UAE or countries with a majority of believers in Buddhism. This difference, according to the researchers, emphasizes how objective the information we consume and appear on paper – framed because of considerations that are beyond our control.
Aside from the differences in the way a universal word like “God” jumps to different results – in text results and image search – in different areas, searching for politically charged concepts is also a great way to see how Google looks completely different in different places.
The team behind Serch Atlas examined how a search for a topic like the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia shows different results when searching on Google in Russia; In Ukraine – that the peninsula was under its sovereignty before annexation; And in the Netherlands – a country neutral to the conflict between the two countries. A search of the various countries shows that in Russia the words “annexation of the Crimean peninsula” show results that indicate that the island is part of Russia, while in Ukraine the annexation is given a more difficult name (and as we know it) “occupation”. The results in the Netherlands, on the other hand, speak of EU sanctions (of which the Netherlands is a member) on Russia following the annexation.
The same case can be seen when looking for explosive concepts such as “Tiananmen Square”, the square whose name became synonymous with protests against the Communist Party of China, where tens of thousands of students were killed in a 1989 protest. In China (or at least by searching through Google China, the search engine itself is blocked in the country), a search for images of the square will only show you peaceful images of a spacious square – while a search outside the country that controls its Internet will show you pictures of tanks in the square, especially the anonymous Rebel “Where one man stood in front of a row of tanks as part of the 1989 protest and became a sergeant.
The interesting part of Search Atlas is not only the fact that you can see the differences in results between different regions, but the fact that it unveils from what is considered – ostensibly – a neutral tool for information consumption. Yes, we may be aware that Google is far from neutral when it comes to sponsored content or by using SEO and other SEO techniques. But when it comes to terms that have no economic connection like God or politically charged terms – Search Atlas shatters the apparent neutrality of the search tools we all use on a daily basis.
Rodrigo Ochigma, one of MIT’s Search Atlas and PhD students, told that “any attempt to quantify the relevance of a particular topic in a structured way includes relying on value and political priorities,” meaning he was not really surprised that our searches achieve different results in countries Various. He created the tool with a computer science doctoral student named Katherine Yea, and the two created besides the ability to compare results by different regions also some other features into the tool, like creating maps and visualizations showing how search results are distributed by different regions.
“People ask search engines questions they’ll never ask other people, and the things they’re exposed to in Google results can change their lives,” says Ya, adding that the specific reasons Google shows different results in different areas – or the lack of certain results – are not open to the public given the fact That the American giant keeps the cards to her chest and that this power she holds is immense.
Google responded to a question as to why their search engine is showing different results and a company spokesman said that the difference in results does not come because of censorship and that the difference in results around Tiananmen Square is available through search engine in each country. According to him, the difference in the images – which do not include images of the protest in the square – in the Chinese version of Google is due to the fact that the search engine recognizes that users want to walk in the area and therefore presents them with more “friendly” images. A spokesman for Google added that “the results are localized according to the location where they are searching and the language in which the search was done, so that users can have quick access to the most reliable information.”
The tool created by the two researchers was unveiled last month at an academic conference and is currently, unfortunately, not available to the general public. For those of you who want to experiment, the Search Atlas website has a registration box for those of you who are interested in playing with the tool, which is currently in private beta.