How biased are our search results?

10 Aug 2023

Prof Gareth Jones. Image: Elaine Burke

The latest episode of For Tech’s Sake explores the inner workings of search and the algorithms behind recommendation engines with Prof Gareth Jones.

Pretty much everyone uses search in some capacity every single day, but how much do you know about search?

Google is often the first port of call for many of us online, but do you understand the algorithms deciding the results of our search or how recommendation engines are shaping our online experience?

These algorithms and recommendation engines can have powerful effects, particularly if people know how to manipulate them. A recent example of this came to light during Depp v Heard, the celebrity trial that the world was watching in 2022.

The vicious, public trial exploded on social media, particularly across the platform formerly known as Twitter and on YouTube.

In July 2022, Bot Sentinel published a report in which they analysed more than 14,000 tweets that included anti-Heard hashtags. The report identified 627 Twitter accounts dedicated to tweeting negatively about Heard and her women supporters. It also found that almost 25pc of the accounts had been created within the past seven months.

When you take these potential manipulated recommendation engines and consider them alongside the fact that more and more news is being consumed directly through social media, we’ve got to consider how biased our results are when we go to type into that search bar.

To discuss this topic, Adapt Centre’s Prof Gareth Jones joined us on the latest episode of For Tech’s Sake.

An internationally recognised expert on information retrieval and search technologies, Jones gave us an insight into how search engines work, answered our questions on whether platforms are listening to us to generate recommendations, and gave us a glimpse into how we might search audio and video media in future.

He said that bias has become a more concerning element of recommendation engines. “They have this effect where you’d be looking at a particular view of the world because it matches very well with what you’re doing, so you’re getting a biased political view of the world or environmental view of the world because it’s the echo chamber/confirmation bias-type things,” he said.

“And you feel happy with it, because it’s what you’re familiar with, but is that actually a good thing to be doing? Should you be giving people a much more varied set of results?”

Jones also addressed the concern so many people have around whether or not their phone is listening to them to serve up ads and content. “It’s not clear how much of it is due to sharing information and how much is just social coincidence of what’s going on.”

He added that there are a number of different signals that could be triggering these bizarre situations. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be listening to you all the time, you’re just giving enough evidence. And sometimes, it’s just coincidence.”

Check out the full episode with Prof Gareth Jones and subscribe for more.

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