If you want to see how data voids are utilized by extremists, here’s a good example. Last night a prominent conservative organization tweeted this image:
You see the beach ball, right? It asks you to Google the “Kalergi Plan”. What’s that? It’s an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that has its roots in “the ‘white genocide’ and ‘great replacement’ conspiracy rhetoric in far-right circles, which allege that a secret ruling class of Jewish elites is using immigration policy to remove European white people from the population.”
It’s garbage, and it’s dangerous garbage. Specifically, it’s the sort of garbage that motivated both the shooter in the Tree of Life massacre and the shooter in the Christchurch shootings.
But what happens when you Google this term?
What you see immediately are the videos. These videos, like a lot of conspiracy videos, take a little known footnote in history and place it center stage. Kalergi, of course, is historically real. But he is also a historical figure of little note and no current influence. As such, there isn’t much writing on him, except (and here’s the main thing) by those who have put him at the center of a fake conspiracy.
So what you get is what researchers call a “data void“: people who know anything about the history of Europe, immigration, etc. don’t talk about Kalergi, because he is insignificant, a figure most notable for the conspiracy theories built around him. But people using the conspiracy theory talk about Kalergi quite a lot. So when you search Kalergi Plan, almost all the information you get will be by white supremacist conspiracy theorists.
These bad actors then use the language of critical thinking to tell you to look at the evidence and “make up your own mind.”
But of course if you’re searching “Kalergi plan”, most of the “evidence” you are getting comes from white supremacist conspiracy theorists. Making up your own mind under such a scenario is meaningless at best.
Things used to be much worse up until a few months ago, because if you watched one of these videos, YouTube would keep playing you conspiracy videos on the “Kalergi Plan” via a combination of autoplay, recommended videos, and personalization. It would start connecting you to other videos on other neo-Nazi theories, “race science”, and the like. People would Google a term once and suddenly find themselves permanently occupying a racist, conspiracy driven corner of the internet. Fun stuff.
Due to some recent actions by YouTube this follow-on effect has been substantially mitigated (though their delay in taking action has led to the development of a racist-conspiracist bro culture on YouTube that continues to radicalize youth). The tamping down of the recommended video conspiracy vector isn’t perfect, but it is already having good effects. However, it’s worth noting that reducing the influence of this vector has probably increased the importance of Google This ploys on the net, since people are less likely to hit these videos without direct encouragement.
What can we do as educators? What should we encourage our students to do?
1. Choose your search terms well
First, let students know that all search terms should be carefully chosen, and ideally formed using terms associated with the quality and objectivity of the information you want back. Googling “9/11 hoax” is unlikely to provide you reliable information on the 9/11 attacks, as people who study 9/11 don’t refer to it as a hoax. In a similar vein, “black on white crime”, the term that began the radicalization of the Charleston church shooter, is a term used by many neo-Nazis but does not feature prominently in academic analysis of crime patterns. Medical misinformation is similar — if you search for information on “aborted fetuses” in vaccines when there are not aborted fetuses in vaccines the people you’re going to end up reading are irresponsible, uneducated kooks.
This isn’t to say that a better search term gets you great results, especially around issues that are conspiracy-adjacent. But a better search term may at least return a set of results with some good pages listed. Here are the top results for a bad search ([[“aborted fetuses in vaccines”]] on the left), and ([[stem cells vaccines]]) on the right.
Note the differences (reliable sources are highlighted). With the loaded terms on the left, the top two results are from unreliable sources. However, the less loaded search returns better results. In addition to seeing some scholarly articles with the better terms (a possible-though-not-foolproof indicator you are using better language) the second item here is not only a reliable resource on this issue, but one of the best comprehensive explanations of the issue written for the general public, from an organization that specializes in the history of medicine. Search on the loaded terms, however, and you will not see this, even in the first fifty results.
2. Search for yourself
Conspiracy theorists are fond of asking people to “think for themselves” — after those people use the suggested conspiracy-inflected search terms to immerse themselves in a hall of mirrored bullshit. A better idea might be to do less thinking for yourself and more searching for yourself. When you see signs or memes asking you to search specific terms, realize that the person asking you to do that may be part of a community that has worked to flood the search results for that term with misinformation.
When we say “search for yourself” we do not mean you should use terms that return information that matches your beliefs. We mean that you should think carefully about the sort of material you want to find. If you wish to find scholarly articles or popular presentations of scholarly work, choose terms scholars use. If you are interested in the history of the Europe’s current immigration policies, search for “history of europe’s immigration policies”, not “Kalergi Plan”. Don’t be an easy mark. There’s nothing more ridiculous than a person talking about thinking for themselves while searching on terms they were told to search on by random white supremacists or flat-earthers on the internet.
A final note — for the moment, avoid auto-complete in searches unless it truly is what you were just about to type. Auto-complete often amplifies social bias and for niche terms it can be gamed in ways that send folks down the wrong path. It’s not so bad when searching for very basic how to information or the location of the nearest coffee shop, but for research on issues of social controversy or conflict it should be avoided.
3. Anticipate what sorts of sources might be in a good search — and notice if they don’t show up
Before going down the search result rabbit hole, ask yourself what sort of sources would be the most authoritative to you on those issues and look to see if those sorts of pages show up in the results. There’s a set of resources I’ve grown used to seeing when I type in a well-formed medical query — the Mayo Clinic, WebMD, the American Cancer Society, the National Institutes of Health. (as an example, look at “melatonin for sleep” as a search). When looking for coverage of national events I’ve grown use to seeing recognizable newspapers — the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal.
Students don’t necessarily have the ability to recognize these sorts of sources off the bat, but they should cultivate the habit of noticing the results that turn up in a well tuned query, and the sources that turn up in a data void, such as the “death foods” term you may occasionally see in website sponsored ad chumbuckets. Initially this understanding may be more about genre than specific touchstones — expecting newspapers to show up for events, hospitals and .gov sites for medical searches, magazine or journal treatments of policy issues.
The important thing, however, is anticipation. Does the student have at least a vague expectation of the sorts of sources they expect to see before they hit the search button. If they develop the habit of forming these informal expectations they are more likely to reanalyze search terms when those expectations are violated.