Citizen science project explores search engine secrets

Thousands of people are being asked to share their search engine results for research into whether platforms such as Google and YouTube promote misinformation and political biases.

The Australian Search Experience Project, launching today, brings together researchers from three Australian universities within the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society and partner organisation AlgorithmWatch.

They are aiming to determine the impact of personalisation of search results for critical news and information, across key platforms from Google to YouTube.

The project group is seeking more than 3,000 participants for the citizen science project, where a downloadable plugin will periodically run searches on users’ search engines using keywords, and report the results back to researchers.

Co-Chief Investigator, Professor Mark Andrejevic from Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism, said there is little known about the way search engines order and display information.

“We know that search engines shape our information environment, but we don't know how this plays out in practice,” he said.

“There has been lots of speculation about their ability to show different people different information in response to the same search queries - potentially contributing to political polarisation and the spread of false information.

“We know from recent experience that these are real concerns when it comes to important political and public health issues, including the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But only the search engines themselves really know what is going on - our goal is to provide some much needed public accountability.

“If we want to engage in meaningful public discussion about how best to respond to the power these companies have to shape what we know about the world, we need evidence about what is really happening online.”

The project will ultimately provide an independent, rigorous assessment of how search and social platforms shape information flows and public discourse for Australian users.

It will assess the extent to which search results are personalised by various leading search engines and their algorithms, based on the profiles established by those search engines for their different users.

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.

Researchers will work with policymakers, educators, and the platforms themselves to mitigate any negative effects of custom tailored search results.

To install the plugin, simply go to https://www.admscentre.org.au/searchexperience/ and follow the instructions.