The Establishment is running scared of the Internet, as it should. This Stanford professor calls for Google to label sites that promote anti-Establishment historical facts.
This is what the Establishment did from 1940-1995. It controlled book publishing. It kept out “conspiracy theories.” Ah, the good old days! But they are gone forever.
There are independent sites out there — bad sites, he says. They tell people things that the Establishment does not approve of.
Such democratization of information-gathering—when accompanied by smart institutional and technological arrangements—has been tremendously useful, giving us Wikipedia and Twitter. But it has also spawned thousands of sites that undermine scientific consensus, overturn well-established facts, and promote conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the move toward social search may further insulate regular visitors to such sites; discovering even more links found by their equally paranoid friends will hardly enlighten them. Is it time for some kind of a quality control system?
People who deny global warming, oppose the Darwinian account of evolution, refuse to see the causal link between HIV and AIDS, and think that 9/11 was an inside job have put the Internet to great use. Initially, the Internet helped them find and recruit like-minded individuals and promote events and petitions favorable to their causes. However, as so much of our public life has shifted online, they have branched out into manipulating search engines, editing Wikipedia entries, harassing scientists who oppose whatever pet theory they happen to believe in, and amassing digitized scraps of “evidence” that they proudly present to potential recruits.
What to do then? Well, perhaps, it’s time to accept that many of these communities aren’t going to lose core members regardless of how much science or evidence is poured on them. Instead, resources should go into thwarting their growth by targeting their potential—rather than existent—members.
Today, anyone who searches for “is global warming real” or “risks of vaccination” or “who caused 9/11?” on Google or Bing is just a few clicks away from joining one of such communities. Given that censorship of search engines is not an appealing or even particularly viable option, what can be done to ensure that users are made aware that all the pseudoscientific advice they are likely to encounter may not be backed by science?
But how to do this. That’s the problem.
The options aren’t many. One is to train our browsers to flag information that may be suspicious or disputed. Thus, every time a claim like “vaccination leads to autism” appears in our browser, that sentence would be marked in red—perhaps, also accompanied by a pop-up window advising us to check a more authoritative source. The trick here is to come up with a database of disputed claims that itself would correspond to the latest consensus in modern science—a challenging goal that projects like “Dispute Finder” are tackling head on.
The second—and not necessarily mutually exclusive—option is to nudge search engines to take more responsibility for their index and exercise a heavier curatorial control in presenting search results for issues like “global warming” or “vaccination.” Google already has a list of search queries that send most traffic to sites that trade in pseudoscience and conspiracy theories; why not treat them differently than normal queries? Thus, whenever users are presented with search results that are likely to send them to sites run by pseudoscientists or conspiracy theorists, Google may simply display a huge red banner asking users to exercise caution and check a previously generated list of authoritative resources before making up their minds.
This is being done.
In more than a dozen countries Google already does something similar for users who are searching for terms like “ways to die” or “suicidal thoughts” by placing a prominent red note urging them to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. It may seem paternalistic, but this is the kind of nonintrusive paternalism that might be saving lives without interfering with the search results. Of course, such a move might trigger conspiracy theories of its own—e.g. is Google shilling for Big Pharma or for Al Gore?—but this is a risk worth taking as long as it can help thwart the growth of fringe movements.
He is right. I am hereby suggesting just such a conspiracy.
Unfortunately, Google’s recent embrace of social search, whereby links shared by our friends on Google’s own social network suddenly gain prominence in our search results, moves the company in the opposite direction. It’s not unreasonable to think that denialists of global warming or benefits of vaccination are online friends with other denialists. As such, finding information that contradicts one’s views would be even harder. This is one more reason for Google to atone for its sins and ensure that subjects dominated by pseudoscience and conspiracy theories are given a socially responsible curated treatment.
I don’t thin it’s going to happen. I don’t think Professor Censor will get his wish. I don’t think the Establishment can control us for much longer. I think the New World Order is going to fail.
We have access to the Web. This site is proof. You know others that are proof.
They bet the farm on their control over information. On January 17, 1998, the day Matt Drudge reported on Newsweek‘s suppression of the Clinton-Lewinsky story, the Establishment’s strategy ceased to work as planned.
It will never work well again.