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Google currently ranks websites based on their popularity, but they’re toying with the idea of ranking them based on something slightly more helpful: how truthful they are.
For the past few years, they’ve been building something called the Knowledge Vault, which automatically scans the Internet and identifies millions of facts that pretty much everyone can agree are correct, like that George W. Bush is 69 years old and Circus Peanuts are the most disgusting candy in existence.
The idea is that they could use this knowledge vault to give priority to search results that are truthful. This is a really exciting idea for those of us who promote science over much more popular pseudoscience. When people search “vaccines, autism” I want them to see well-researched and accessible links that will explain that the science shows us that vaccines do not cause autism. I don’t want the top link to be Natural News, where a homeopath named Feather will tell them that polio is a gift from the Earth that should be treasured.
If Google did institute something like this, it would be in sharp contrast to the direction they’ve been going for the past several years. Not only does Google show results based on popularity, but for the past few years they’ve also been showing people “personalized” results based on their own social media, which is, frankly, disastrous for the promotion of science.
Research has shown that Google’s personalized search results have increased the amount of nonsense being spread around, since it helps people stay inside their ideological bubbles and see only what the people they’re already following on Twitter are saying. These social media results have even been gamed in the past, as some researchers showed when examining the spread of a “Twitter bomb” in the waning hours of the election runoff between Scott Brown and Martha Coakley for Senate. Brown was trailing for most of the run up to the election, until his social media team kicked things into high gear. The same group responsible for the “swift boating” of John Kerry set up an attack website against Coakley. Hundreds of spam Twitter accounts then tweeted and retweeted the links to Brown’s fans, who then retweeted them. The links became so popular so quickly on Twitter that Google would display the tweets prominently in results when people searched for Coakley or Brown, even after Twitter banned the spam accounts.
As long as Google or something like it exists, people will find ways to game the system. But I have to say, it does seem like it’ll be a lot harder to misrepresent something as “truthful” than it is to misrepresent it as “popular,” especially if Google drafts actual experts in relevant fields to help out.
I’m still skeptical it will work, since “truth” is such a tough thing to get a handle on these days. And I wonder how the system would deal with satire, or pure opinion. But hell, it has climate change deniers like Anthony Watts freaking out, so I’m willing to sit back and see what happens.