Is Google Becoming a Threat to Public Literacy?


Google’s “knowledge panels” materialize at random, as unsourced and absolute as if handed down by God:

Betty White is 94 years old.

The Honda Civic is 2016’s best car.

Taipei is the capital of — ahem — the “small island nation” of Taiwan.

If you’ve ever Googled a person, place or thing — which, survey suggests, you almost definitely have — then you’ve encountered these aggressive, bold-faced modules, one of Google’s many bids for your fleeting attention. Since their quiet, casual introduction in 2012, knowledge panels and other sorts of “rich answers” have mushroomed across Google, appearing atop the results onroughly one-third of its 100 billion monthly searches, not only in response to simple, numerical queries like “Betty White age,” but also to more complex, nuanced questions like “capital of Israel” or “D.C.’s best restaurant.”

To Google, that’s proof of its semantic search technology; to Googlers, it’s a convenience that saves them a few clicks. But to skeptics, of whom there are a growing number, it’s a looming public literacy threat — one that arguably dwarfs the recent revelations that Facebook’s trending topics are curated by humans.

“It undermines people’s ability to verify information and, ultimately, to develop well-informed opinions,” said Dario Taraborelli, head of research at the Wikimedia Foundation and a social computing researcher who studies knowledge production online. “And that is something I think we really need to study and process as a society.”

For Taraborelli, the primary issue with Google’s knowledge panels is that they aren’t terribly knowledgeable: They provide information but often leave out any context on where that information came from. That makes it difficult for readers to evaluate the accuracy of the statement or whether it’s the best and most complete of the available options.

They could just scroll down the page and click through some links, of course — but that becomes increasingly difficult as searchers migrate to voice and mobile, and as Google expands its rich-answer offerings without differentiating which programs those results source from.

There are “snippets,” for instance, which pull a portion of text from a cited webpage in response to a question like “how to lose weight.” There are maps, sourced from Google’s local search program, that will direct you to local businesses if you search something like “best pizza D.C.”

These are all concerning, as they algorithmically confer a lot of unearned authority. (There’s no indication as to what makes a restaurant the “best,” for instance — the locations proffered during a recent Google search wouldn’t make my top 10, let alone my top three.) But most pertinent to our interests are the modules and carousels linked to Google’s Knowledge Graph, an advanced database sourced largely from Wikipedia and constructed in part from user search patterns. According to a October 2015 analysis by the digital marketing firm Stone Temple Consulting, these knowledge panels, which are frequently unattributed, are one of the fastest growing types in Google’s arsenal.

Click here to continue reading…

SOURCE: Caitlin Dewey 
The Washington Post