Wanted: browsers to help uncover the truth about online search result bias

Australians are being asked to share their internet browsers with a new research project that aims to find out whether people’s search results on hot button topics vary wildly depending on who they are.

Amid ongoing concern that the personalisation of search results leads to people only being presented results that align with their existing views on everything from politics to vaccines and lockdowns, researchers from the ARC centre for excellence for automated decision-making in technology have launched a new project to collect search results from thousands of Australians to see how they differ.

Queensland University of Technology Prof Axel Bruns, who is the chief investigator at the centre and has long researched people’s online lives, told Guardian Australia the aim of the project was to determine what, if any, search result bubbles exist.

Bruns said on one side was the argument that people had “profiles that the search engines have created for us and that will cause problems for society and it’s driving polarisation”. But he said there was also “a whole other set of research that’s tried to test this and actually often hasn’t found much personalisation – particularly with generic search engines like Google”.

He said the project would run for a year, with hopefully thousands of participants across demographics and the political spectrum.

Researchers would partner with news outlets to figure out trending issues where the data could be useful in demonstrating how people might be presented with different information on the same topic.

The project would run during the next federal election, meaning researchers will have the chance to collect data on whether some election messaging is getting a bigger pick up with some people than others, Bruns said.

“We actually expect to see quite a bit of evolution of search results particularly for these topics that relate to the pandemic, to the election, whatever else, we might well see some deliberate mis- and disinformation campaigns we might be able to track.”

By including YouTube search results, the team also hope to get more data around whether users are, over time, presented more and more extreme content on topics such as vaccines.

“We have to wait for the results … but we might expect to see more personalisation in YouTube, which obviously is much closer to a social media site that wants to provide you some really personal and personalised information, and less variation on Google Search, which relies on being a trusted source of information,” the QUT professor said.

People who want to participate would need to install an extension on their desktop browser which would routinely launch searches every few hours on Google, Google News, and YouTube on subjects predetermined by the researchers.

The results would then be collected and passed back to the researchers. The researchers do not gain access to browsing histories. People who sign up can provide limited demographic data to the project but it is not mandatory.

People interested in participating can visit the research website and install the browser plugin Qui.

Guardian Australia has sought comment from Google.

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