By William H. Dutton, Professor of Media and Information Policy, Michigan State University.
In the early years of the internet, it was revolutionary to have a world of information just a click away from anyone, anywhere, anytime. Many hoped this inherently democratic technology could lead to better-informed citizens more easily participating in debate, elections and public discourse.
Today, though, many observers are concerned that search algorithms and social media are undermining the quality of online information people see. They worry that bad information may be weakening democracy in the digital age.
The problems include online services conveying fake news, splitting users into “filter bubbles” of like-minded people and enabling users to unwittingly lock themselves up in virtual echo chambers that reinforce their own biases.
These concerns are much discussed, but have not yet been thoroughly studied. What research does exist has typically been limited to a single platform, such Twitter or Facebook. Our study of search and politics in seven nations – which surveyed the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain in January 2017 – found these concerns to be overstated, if not wrong. In fact, many internet users trust search to help them find the best information, check other sources and discover new information in ways that can burst filter bubbles and open echo chambers.
Surveying internet users
We sought to learn directly from people about how they used search engines, social media and other sources of information about politics. Through funding from Google, we conducted an online survey of more than 14,000 internet users in seven nations.
We found that the fears surrounding search algorithms and social media are not irrelevant – there are problems for some users some of the time. However, they are exaggerated, creating unwarranted fears that could lead to inappropriate responses by users, regulators and policymakers.
The importance of searching
The survey findings demonstrate the importance of search results over other ways to get information. When people are looking for information, they very often search the internet. Nearly two-thirds of users across our seven nations said they use a search engine to look for news online at least once a day. They view search results as equally accurate and reliable as other key sources, like television news.
In line with that general finding, a search engine is the first place internet users go online for information about politics. Moreover, those internet users who are very interested in politics, and who participate in political activities online, are the most likely to use a search engine like Bing or Google to find information online about politics.
But crucially, those same users engaged in search are also very likely to get information about politics on other media, exposing themselves to diverse sources of information, which makes them more likely to encounter diverse viewpoints. Further, we found that people who are interested and involved in politics online are more likely to double-check questionable information they find on the internet and social media, including by searching online for additional sources in ways that will pop filter bubbles and break out of echo chambers.
Internet-savvy or not?
It’s not just politically interested people who have these helpful search habits: People who use the internet more often and have more practice searching online do so as well.
That leaves the least politically interested people and the least skilled internet users as most susceptible to fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers online. These individuals could benefit from support and training in digital literacy.
However, for most people, internet searches are critical for checking the reliability and validity of information they come across, whether online, on social media, on traditional media or in everyday conversation. Our research shows that these internet users find search engines useful for checking facts, discovering new information, understanding others’ views on issues, exploring their own views and deciding how to vote.
We found that people in different countries do vary in how much they trust and rely on the internet and searches for information. For example, internet users in Germany, and to a lesser extent those in France and the United Kingdom, are more trusting in TV and radio news, and more skeptical of searches and online information. Internet users in Germany rate the reliability of search engines lower than those in all the other nations, with 44 percent saying search engines are reliable, compared with 50 to 57 percent across the other six countries.
In Poland, Italy and Spain, people trust traditional broadcast media less and are more reliant on, and trusting of, internet and searching. Americans are in the middle; there were greater differences within European countries than between Europe as a whole and the U.S. American internet users were so much more likely to consult multiple sources of information that we called them “media omnivores.”
Internet users generally rely on a diverse array of sources for political information. And they display a healthy skepticism, leading them to question information and check facts. Regulating the internet, as some have proposed, could undermine existing trust and introduce new questions about accuracy and bias in search results.
But panic over fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles is exaggerated, and not supported by the evidence from users across seven countries.
William H. Dutton received funding from Google through Michigan State University to conduct the survey on which these findings are based. However, Google did not design the study, questionnaire, analysis, or findings. The opinions are those of the author and not any organization that supported this research.