Goggle Gatekeeper

The internet is truly a wonderful invention, for which Al Gore doesn’t get nearly enough credit for creating. Thanks to the internet anyone can research any topic and acquire information in a matter of minutes that would have taken hours or even days before, if at all.  Best of all, one can bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information such as the mainstream media. There is the problem of the quality of the information gathered by search engines such as Google. Since the results are generally ranked by popularity, websites promoting crazy conspiracy theories and medical quackery get the same attention as sober scientific journals. It requires a certain amount of judgement to sift through the results of any web search to get accurate information.

According to some reports, Google is getting ready to do the sifting for us. The researchers at Google are trying to develop a search algorithm that will rank pages according to facts in their database. Webpages will get a truth score based on how closely the claims in that page correspond to the facts in Google’s database. They will then be ranked according to how truthful or accurate they are, at least according to Google.

It should not come as much of a surprise that progressives are gleeful about the possibility of putting a new gatekeeper over the Internet. Reality and truth have a liberal bias, as they say, and fact-checking by the right sort of people can make sure people with ideas contrary to liberal truths are able able to spread their misinformation. I read an article in Salon that is positively ecstatic about putting “anti-science advocates” in their place.

Google could launch an effort to keep trolls and bad information at bay, with a program that would rank websites according to veracity, and sort results according to those rankings. Currently, the search engine ranks pages according to popularity, which means that pages containing unsubstantiated celebrity gossip or conspiracy theories, for example, show up very high.

Google has recently implemented a kind of Knowledge-Based Truth score lite with its medical search results. Now, doctors and real medical experts vet search results about health conditions, meaning anti-vaxx propaganda will not appear in the top results for a “measles” search, for instance.

Even though the former program is just in the research stage, some anti-science advocates are upset about the potential development, likely because their websites will become buried under content that is, well, true.

“I worry about this issue greatly,” said Anthony Watts, founder of climate denying website “Watts Up With That,” in an interview with FoxNews.com. “My site gets a significant portion of its daily traffic from Google… It is a very slippery and dangerous slope because there’s no arguing with a machine.”

One need not have read John Stuart Mill to understand why this is a bad idea, though it might help. You only need to ask a simple question, what if Anthony Watts is right?What if global warming is not a real threat and measures to prevent it will only waste billions of dollars and make a lot of people poorer? Well, we wouldn’t know until too late because Google might place his blog at the bottom of the rankings because they believe him to be wrong. A gatekeeper in charge of sifting good information from bad will not eliminate the problem of bad information on the Internet. It will only ensure that bad information preferred by the gatekeeper will go unchallenged. This idea that the common people cannot decide for themselves what is correct and incorrect has been the pretext for autocrats, despots, and theocrats, throughout history to justify controlling the information possessed by the common people by censorship, propaganda, or other methods. The despots and autocrats have never liked to be shown that they were wrong and their contemporary admirers are no better. If Google ever manages to make this truth ranking system to work, it will inevitably reflect what the designers of the new search algorithm believe to be the truth whether right or wrong. Truths that they do not like, perhaps like global warming is a fraud, will be buried.

Messy as it is, we must have faith that in the free marketplace of ideas the truth will ultimately prevail over falsehood. There is no other way to get at the truth except by allowing all sides to have their say. I predict that if Google adopts this new search method, Google will be a great deal less useful as a search engine and perhaps people will turn elsewhere to find things on the Internet.

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