A new study has shown that although they may protect your personal data, independent search engines display a lot more misinformation related to vaccines than internet giants, such as Google.
In 2019, the World Health Organization (Geneva, Switzerland) listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. The internet plays a huge role in this rise in negative attitudes towards vaccinations as misinformation continues to be published and widely spread, with many taking what they read online as fact.
Determined to fully evaluate the role of search engines in spreading this misinformation, an international research group conducted a study to monitor the amount of anti-vaccination resources returned in searches in different search engines.
Internet companies tracking and storing user’s personal data and monitoring their online behavior has left many internet users wary of internet giants and turning, instead, to independent search engines. The study, published in Frontiers in Medicine, focused on how the search engines’ approach to data privacy may impact the quality of scientific results.
“A recent report showed that (50%) of people in the UK would not take a Coronavirus vaccine if it was available. This is frightening – and this study perhaps gives some indication as to why this is happening,” remarked lead author Pietro Ghezzi (Brighton & Sussex Medical School, UK).
Just when we all thought COVID-19 cases were decreasing worldwide, the importance of science communication and access to reliable sources continues to take the stage as a key player in the battle against an emerging virus.
The researchers searched for the term “vaccines autism” in a variety of different search engines in English, Spanish, Italian and French. For each search the Chrome browser was cleared of cookies and previous search history. They then analyzed the first 30 results from all searches.
Vaccines being linked to autism is a concept inherited from a now discredited study published in 1998, linking the MMR vaccine to the development of autism. Despite the fact that countless studies have since been published since disproving the theory, the flawed findings are still shared as if fact by many.
The researchers discovered that alternative, independent search engines (Duckduckgo, Ecosia, Qwant, Swisscows, and Mojeek) and other commercial engines (Bing and Yahoo) display more anti-vaccination websites (10-53%) in the first 30 results than Google (0%).
Furthermore, some localized versions of Google (English-UK, Italian and Spanish) also returned up to 10% more anti-vaccination resources than the google.com (English-US).
“There are two main messages here,” Ghezzi summarized. “One is to the Internet giants, who are becoming more responsible in terms of avoiding misinformation, but need to build trust with users regarding privacy because of their use of personal data; and the other is to the alternative search engines, who could be responsible for spreading misinformation on vaccines, unless they become better in their role as information gatekeepers. This suggests that quality of the information provided, not just privacy, should be regulated.”
The researchers concluded that search engines should be developing tools to test search engines from the perspective of information quality, particularly with health-related webpages, before they can be deemed trustworthy providers of public health information.