Few would be surprised to learn that Google handles 90% of all internet searches. What would be news to many is that – according to journalist Jack Nicas – the internet giant is increasingly "presenting itself as the authority on truth by promoting a single search result as the answer."
And those results are often wrong.
For example, to the question "Does money buy happiness?" Google recently highlighted a result that stated: "There is enough scientific research to prove it."
To "Who are the worst CEOs of all time?" Google answered with the names and photos of 11 chief executives, including Gordon Bethune of Continental Airlines and Robert Nardelli of Home Depot.
To "Should abortion be legal?" Google cited a South African news site saying, "It is not the place of government to legislate against women's choices."
These are "promoted answers" or "featured snippets" outlined in boxes above other results and presented in larger type, often with images.
And they are believed, by many, to be the definitive answer. Surveys show people "consider search engines their most-trusted source of information, over traditional media or social media." This is why Google's featured answers "are feeding a raging global debate about the ability of Silicon Valley companies to influence society... the power of their products and their vulnerability to bias or manipulation."
This is larger than the criticism directed at Facebook over the spread of "fake news" during the 2016 presidential election. It's about a new day when the dominant source of information is not simply divorced from truth, but the recipients are divorced from wisdom. And this is the curse of our day: almost unlimited access to information and virtually no wisdom by which to parse it.
When a Google spokesperson said the company's goal isn't to do the thinking for users but "to help you find relevant information quickly and easily… [and to] encourage users to understand the full context by clicking through to the source," I couldn't help but think back on a similar statement by film director Oliver Stone.
In a speech given at American University, responding to the distortions and factual errors pointed out in his film JFK (presented as a faux-documentary on the Kennedy assassination), Stone said that films shouldn't be the end-all for what is true and that people "have a responsibility to read a book."
He went on to say, "[No one is] going to sit through a three-hour movie and say, 'That's that.'"
He's wrong. That is exactly what people do.
Or, as University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci who studies technology's effect on society said,
"This is how people learn about the world."
Yes, it is.
So when the featured answer to the query, "Why are Komodo dragons endangered?" is volcanoes, fire and tourism, there is a problem. Particularly when you find the source was a Canadian elementary school student's report that was posted online, and that Komodo dragons aren't endangered at all.
But people who actually know this, or bother to find out are.
James Emery White
Jack Nicas, "Google Has Already Picked an Answer for You—Too Bad It's Often Wrong," The Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2017, read online.
See also James Emery White, A Mind for God.