Searching for the Truth

When you need to fact-check information, there’s a lot of options:

  • Snopes investigates rumors like “Nabisco is producing Fried Chicken Oreos”(false, by the way)
  • LazyTruth is an app you can use to debunk stories in chain emails
  • uncovers claims related to public policy and politics
  • PolitiFact is an independent website that checks claims made by politicians using their “Truth-O-Meter” (and tracks President Obama’s campaign promises using their “Obameter”)

But when looking up information on a topic, or trying to learn more about an issue, most people turn to Google as the primary place to get information. Google ranks its search results using an algorithm that looks at metadata (including keywords), popularity, and, increasingly, personalized information gleaned from your search habits and history. How does Google know a website is popular? It looks to see how many other pages link to it, and counts each link as vote of recommendation for that website. The more times other websites link to a certain page, the more that website page will move to the top of your Google search results.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

The problem: Those popular websites don’t always have correct information. As rumors spread, people often link to websites that support their claims, sometimes cherry-picking pages that only show one side of the story. A research team at Google is working on modifying that popularity model to “measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web.” According to an article in The New Scientist, this proposed algorithm “counts the number of incorrect facts within a page” instead of counting the number of incoming links.

In order for Google to determine what is and isn’t a fact, it has a vast Knowledge Vault that contains billions of pieces of information called triples, which it determines to be accurate information. If Google succeeds at being able to rank search results by accuracy (certainly, a useful service) this means we’re relying on technology, a company, an algorithm to tell us what is true and false, taking away our ability to think critically about the information we find, and putting an awful lot of trust in Google. Who will fact-check Google?

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