I’m in the midst of preparing for the “Social Issues and Professional Practice” block for a course and was pondering whether I should touch upon known search engine issues, like the filter bubble and search engine manipulation to nudge democratic elections, which could be interesting given that South Africa just had the local elections last week, with interesting results.
I don’t have the option to show the differences between ‘Google search when logged in’ versus ‘Google search when logged out’, nor for the Bing-Hotmail combination, so I played with other combinations: Google in isiZulu on Firefox (GiF), Google in English on Safari (GES), and Bing in English on Firefox (BEF). I did seven searches at the same time (Friday 12 August 2016, 17:18-17:32) on the same machine (a MacBookPro), using the eduroam on campus. Although this certainly will not pass a test of scientific rigour, it unequivocally shows that it deserves a solid experiment. The only thing I aimed to do was to see whether those things happen in South Africa too, not just in the faraway USA or India. They do.
Before giving the results, some basic preliminaries may be of use if you are not familiar with the topic. On HTTP, that the browser uses: in trying to GET information, your browser sends the server what operating system you are using (Mac, Linux, Windows, etc.), your browser information (e.g., Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc.), and language settings (e.g., UK English, isiZulu, Italian). Safari is linked to the Mac, and thus Apple, and it is assumed that Apple users have more disposable income (are richer). Free and open source software users (e.g., Linux + Firefox) are assumed to be not rich or a leftie or liberal, or all of them. I don’t know if they categorise Apple + Firefox as an armchair socialist or a posh right-wing liberal ;-).
Here goes the data, being the screenshots and the reading and interpretation of the links of the search results, with a bit of context in case you’re not in South Africa. The screens in the screenshots are in the order (from let to right) as GiF, GES, BEF.
- Search term: EFF: GiF and BEF show EFF as political party (leftpopulist opposition party in South Africa) information and a link to EFF as the electronic frontier foundation, whereas the GES just shows EFF as political party in the context of news about the DA political party (capitalist, for the rich, mainly White voters). The GES difference may be explained by the Mac+Safari combination, and it makes one wonder whether and how this has had an effect on perceptions and voting behaviour. Bing had 10mln results, Google 46mln.
- Search term: Jacob Zuma (current president of South Africa): GiF and BEF show general results, GES with articles also about JZ to stay (by a DA supporter) and on that he won’t resign. Bing has 1.1mln results, Google 9.6mln.
- Search term: Nkandla (Zuma’s controversial lavish homestead
that was upgraded with taxpayers money): GiF has pictures and a fact about Nkandla, GES has a picture, fact, and a bit negative news, BEF: more on news and issues (that is: that JZ has to pay back the money). Bing has 700K results, Google 1.8mln.
- Search term: FeesMustFall (hashtag of 2015 on no university fee increases and free higher education): Google results has
‘plain’-looking information, whereas Bing shows results with more information from the FMF perspective, it seems. Bing has 165K results, Google 451K.
- Search term: Fleming Rose (person with controversial ideas,
recently disinvited by UCT to not give the academic freedom lecture): Google shows a little general information and several UCT opinion issues, BEF has information about Fleming Rose. Bing has 1.25mln results, Google about 500K—the only time that Bing’s number of results far outnumbers Google’s.
- Search term: Socialism: GiF has links to definitions, GES and BEF
show a definition in their respective info boxes, which takes up most of the screen. Bing has 7.3mln results, GiF with 23.4mln, GES: 31mln—this is the first time there is a stark difference between the number of results in Google hits, with more for English and Safari.
Search term: Law on cookies in south africa: the results are similar throughout the three search results. Bing has 108mln results, GiF 3mln, and GES 2.2mln—a 1/3 difference in Google’s number of results in the other direction.
In interpreting the results, it has to be noted that Google, though typing in google.com, forced it to google.co.za, where as Bing stayed on bing.com. This might explain some ‘tailoring’ of GiF and GES to news that is topical in South Africa, which does not happen to the same extent on Bing. I suppose that for some search terms, one would like that, and for others, one would not; i.e., to have the option to choose to search for facts vs opinion pieces vs news, nationally or internationally, or whether you’d want to get an answer or get links to multiple answers. Neither Bing nor Google gives you a free choice on the matter: based on the data you provide involuntarily, they make assumptions as to whom you are and what they think that that kind of person would probably like to see in the search results. That three out of the seven searches on GES lean clearly to the political right is a cause of concern, as is the fewer amounts of facts in Google search results vs Bing’s. I also find it a bit odd that the selection of results is from such wide-ranging numbers of results.
Based on this small sampling, I obviously cannot draw hard conclusions, but it would be nice if we can get some money to get a student to investigate this systematically with more browsers and more languages. We now know that it happens, but how does it happen in South Africa, and might there be some effect because of it? Those questions remain unanswered. In the meantime, I’ll have to do with some anecdotes for the students in an upcoming lecture.