Tired of Google, conspiracy theorists turn to DuckDuckGo

In an episode of Joe Rogan’s popular podcast last year, he turned to topics that caught the right-wing community and other Americans who were pandemic skeptical: search engines.

“If we wanted to find a specific case for people who died from vaccine-related injuries, we had to go to DuckDuckGo,” Rogan said of a small privacy-focused search engine. “I didn’t find them on Google.”

Admiration for DuckDuckGo has become a popular refrain during a pandemic among right-wing social media influencers and conspiracy theorists who question the COVID-19 vaccine and push for the treatment of the distrusted coronavirus. Some people have posted screenshots showing that DuckDuckGo seems to show more links in their opinion than Google.

In addition to Logan, which has recently been the center of protests about podcast misinformation, search engines ring from some of the world’s most downloaded conservative podcasters, such as Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino. Has received support.

“Google is actively curbing search results that aren’t traditionally viewed on the left. To counter all of this, we recommend installing DuckDuckGo on your computer instead of Google.”

Support emphasizes how right-wing Americans and conspirators are shifting their online activities in response to greater moderation from tech giants like Google. They are increasingly embracing fledgling and sometimes fringe platforms, such as chat apps Telegram, video streamer Rumble, and even search engines like DuckDuckGo, seeking conditions that look more favorable to conspiracy theories and falsehoods.

That attention puts search engines in a difficult position and answers questions from an increasing set of Americans who appear to be increasingly trapped in conspiracy theories. They must now try to avoid censorship claims, while providing results related to ambiguous search terms and avoid exposing possible false information.

DuckDuckGo, which accounts for about 3% of the US search market, is generated by Microsoft-owned Bing-provided search engine algorithms, so it has little direct control over the links in search results. Also, all search engine algorithms are considered black boxes because the company that creates them does not fully disclose what informs the decision.

In a statement, DuckDuckGo accused “disinformation acts” and said internal investigations by the company showed that users had a broad political orientation. The company also said it is also researching ways to limit the dissemination of falsely misleading information.

To get a glimpse of what conspiracy theorists encounter when searching online, the New York Times has reviewed the top 20 search results from Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo on more than 30 conspiracy theories and right-wing topics. Search results change over time and may vary from user to user, but the comparison provides a snapshot of what one user might have seen on a normal day in mid-February.

In many terms, Bing and DuckDuckGo have surfaced websites that are less reliable than Google when comparing results to website ratings from surveys published in the Global Disinformation Index, NewsGuard, and Journal Science. (DuckDuckGo relies on Bing’s algorithm, but search results may vary.)

Google’s search results also included untrusted websites, but they were less common and tended to be lower on search pages.

The Times then considered the choice of those terms to see if the content of the linked page advanced the conspiracy theory. Their comparisons often showed even sharper differences between Google and its competitors.

These findings are consistent with the results of two recent studies that concluded that Bing’s algorithm surfaced more conspiracy-theoretic content than Google.

The differences between search engines in The Times’ analysis were most pronounced when the terms were specific. For example, searching for “Satanist Democrats,” the theory by which Democrats worship demons and perform satanic panics, reveals some links that advance conspiracy theory. However, searching for more established claims, such as terms unrelated to the “QAnon” movement or conspiracy, yielded more reliable results from all search engines.

Search as online conspiracy theorists focus more on “doing research”, including digging into content online to deepen conspiracy theory, rather than relying on mainstream media and government sources. The role of the engine has grown.

“Research, Research, Research,” Telegram users write on a channel dedicated to fighting vaccine obligations. “Away from Google search, use only DuckDuckGo.”

When people look for new information online, they tend to appreciate their findings, said Ronald E. Robertson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Internet Observatory who studied search engines.

“It’s far more compelling to look up and find information and feel a sense of discovery about it,” he said. “I don’t feel like someone tells me the truth like on social media.”

DuckDuckGo states that Bing has flagged problematic search terms “on a regular basis” so that they can be addressed. After the Times shared some data on search results for a number of terms disseminated by conspiracy theorists, some of the search results changed completely and shifted to favor more credible sources.

“Finding the right balance between providing reliable results that match the intent of a search query and protecting users from misunderstandings is a daunting task,” Bing said in a statement. .. “We can’t always get that balance right, but that’s our goal.”

Kamyl Bazbaz, vice president of communications at DuckDuckGo, said the results were very similar to Google’s results, and most of the search terms reviewed by The Times received very little traffic.

Google tended to display links from trusted news sources more often, but Buzz Buzz says that adding a few more keywords to a particular search usually shows Google’s misleading information anyway. Said.

“If you’re looking for something like this, you can find it wherever you look,” he said.

Other studies have shown that Bing’s algorithm displays less reliable information than Google when searching for conspiracy theories. A study last year showed less than half of the results of mentioning or promoting the idea of ​​six popular conspiracy theories of Bing and DuckDuckGo. Google worked better, and about a quarter of the links mentioned the ideas, but few supported them. Yahoo was worse than Bing and DuckDuckGo, and Russian search engine Yandex was the worst in the group.

Newer and more esoteric conspiracy theories are much more likely to return misleading results due to so-called data invalidation. Conspiracy theorists tend to publish content about new ideas long before mainstream sources, and dominate search results as the term begins to spread online. Other topics do not attract the attention of mainstream sources, giving conspiracy theorists a long-term presence in search results.

Search engines have long been criticized for not being able to handle data blanks. The criticism was heightened in the 2016 presidential election, with misleading false news stories spreading and alarms ringing among false alarm watchers. Around the same time, Google users noticed that a white supremacist website was displayed as a top result in a search “Did the Holocaust happen?” Google has fine-tuned its algorithms accordingly to better evaluate the reliability of its website, as well as its relevance to content search terms.

Since 2021, Google has also automatically added a warning box to indicate “results are changing rapidly” for suddenly popular terms.

The warning came after Dr. Robert Malone, an infectious disease researcher, appeared in the “Joe Rogan Experience” late last year. In that interview, Malone raised the unreliable idea of ​​mass-forming psychosis. It explains a kind of groupthink idea that seems to have persuaded the public to support pandemic measures.

After the show, interest in search terms exploded and Google results displayed a warning label. Malone fans quickly claimed that Google targeted the term and removed the link or edited the search results.

“The suggestion of manually editing search results has no merit,” Google said in a statement. However, the company added that the algorithm would be adjusted automatically in some cases to shift trusted links to higher ranks than more relevant links.

To address data gaps, search engines have added information boxes in search results that display more reliable information, such as news carousels that display articles from trusted media sources at the top of search results. DuckDuckGo collaborates with researchers at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy to find out how to mitigate false information through information boxes and “instant answers” that are already in use to reinforce the results of Bing’s search algorithms. He said he was doing it.

Daniel Bush, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory, warned that the automated nature of search engines means that conspirators will continue to prey on data blanks to promote misleading information online.

“Data invalidation is a key issue at the heart of the technology, and there is no algorithm that can fix it,” analyzed search results in 2019, and false information is more prevalent in Bing than Google. Bush said that. “The more automation we have, the more vulnerable we are.”

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Tired of Google, conspiracy theorists turn to DuckDuckGo

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