A case for information literacy: Climate edition

With COP24 coming to a close at the end of this week, climate change has been relatively newsworthy which likely means that people are more likely to use their favorite search engine to search for information related to climate change. In a recent survey by the Association for Canadian Studies, Canadians reported that they believe the Internet makes them smarter, and they feel they do not have to remember facts or events because they can so easily search them online.

But is it wise to trust search engines as information sources? A growing number of critical information scholars, including Safiya Noble would say otherwise. In honor of COP24, I decided to test the two most popular search engines on the topic of climate change. I entered “climate change is” into both Google, Yahoo and Bing and took screen capture images of their suggested searches. The differences were very interesting.

A Google search led with the phrase “climate change is real”. Search suggestions also included “climate change issues”, “climate change is natural” and “climate change is a myth”. A closer look at the results for “climate change is a myth” showed Google results that were debunking myths that suggested climate change was not real. Overall, the content of the searches showed a high number of government and science-related sites. Since Google controls about 90% of the search market, the fact that they are leading with the science is probably a development that science communicators can support.

 

A Bing search tells a different story. The first autocomplete result of my Bing search was “climate change is not real”. Results also include “climate change is a hoax”, “climate change is fake” and “climate change is a big lie”.  Search results for phrases like “climate change is a hoax include links to climate skeptic sites, and have fewer links to science or governmen sites than Google. Though Bing only controls about 2.5% of the search market, it comes standard on PCs with Microsoft Explorer, and likely probably is still used by a significant number of searchers so should not be discounted.

Yahoo is also still used by about 2.5% of the search market, and autocompletes results similar to Bing. Here we see results such as “climate change is a scam” and “climate change in bible”. Search results show links to breitbart as well as other climate skeptic sites, and fewer links to science or government sites than Google.

Why might there be such a difference between results? While we think of search results as an objective measure of the popularity of websites, the differences here show that search engines are driven by concerns outside of neutrality and the public interest. As Noble has indicated in her book, Algorithms of Oppression, which I strongly recommend, search engine filtering is not transparent for us to know whose interests are really being represented in a search, but evidence suggests they are driven strongly by an economic logic.

The economic logic argument could explain the differences between results. As a dominant player in the search market, Google has more to gain by supporting the current cultural and government consensus on climate change. In contrast, Bing and Yahoo, probably have more to gain by appealing to niche publics and spreading contentious or dramatic content.

This is one way misinformation spreads. Though we put the emphasis on sites like Facebook, and tend to forget about search engines, it is important that we put these companies under the microscope. They are not neutral providers of information, and there are social, political and economic agendas that drive the algorithmic spread of content.

This is also why we need to teach a type of information literacy that includes a critical assessment of all sources of information, including search engines. While we may think that these tools make us smarter, they will do the opposite unless we learn how to critically assess their results.

A case for information literacy: Climate edition

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