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Every day millions of people use internet search engines for business, research, entertainment, and other various tasks. Many likely use search engines the way they would use a dictionary or, in days gone by, a phone book. The assumption might be that the search engine is value neutral: you plug in search terms and your desired query pops up with your results. But we should recognize that few things in life are truly value neutral. Software programmers have made decisions on how search engines work, and they have made value judgments about how the search engine should function. There are several different ways their value judgments appear in the seemingly innocuous use of a search engine.

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I used to work for a Christian nonprofit organization that strategized how our institution could come up on the first page of a search (i.e., search engine optimization). One of the ways to do this was to ensure certain key words were embedded in our web pages so that, if those words were searched for, our web site would have a greater chance of appearing on the first page of a search. This was the low-cost option. The higher-cost option was to pay for our organization to appear first. We decided to budget a certain amount of money to use ad words to boost our odds of coming up on the first search results page. When you search for “books,” for example, why do Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Books-A-Million appear on the first page of the seventeen billion-plus results that come up? This is largely because they have paid the search engine company. Like placing a large phone book advertisement that catches your eye when flipping through its pages, companies spend money to ensure that their business comes up early in your search. Such a value judgment may make for good business, but does it mean that he who spends the most money is necessarily the best fountain of knowledge? In other words, just because someone pays to get to the top doesn’t mean that it is a click-worthy link.

A Cultural Mirror

When you type in a search query, one of the most common factors that accounts for initial results is the auto-complete function. One of the more popular forms of the auto-complete phenomenon is Wired.com’s series of auto-complete interviews. These videos feature one or more celebrities answering popular search queries that appear such as, “What is [insert celebrity name]’s real name, favorite movie, or favorite food.” Each of the suggested auto-completes represents the most popularly searched queries on the internet. But this raises the question: Is a search engine a genuine database of knowledge, or have software engineers designed search engines to reflect the people using them? Do you access a knowledge database or a cultural mirror? The answer to this question likely hinges on what type of query you enter. Type in “original sin is” and you’ll see a number of different auto-complete suggestions: “a lie,” “wrong,” and “not biblical” are among the most popular. On the other hand, if you enter a search for “best book on Christology,” several different options appear, such as a listing of books on Christology, blogs that discuss the doctrine, and booksellers. The first search is more of a cultural mirror that reflects the people using the search engine to explore doctrines like original sin, whereas the second is more objective in that it gives numerous links to different books on Christology, though even then someone’s subjective opinion made a value judgment on which books to list or not list.

Is a search engine a genuine database of knowledge, or have software engineers designed search engines to reflect the people using them?
Image Scrubbing

One of the recent trends to appear on the internet is “image scrubbing.” The Wall Street Journal recently featured an article that explained this practice. For example, if you want to start a new business but don’t want your last business failure to haunt your new efforts, you can hire a company to flood the internet with positive articles about you and your new business, which has the effect of burying your old “bad” news beneath an avalanche of good news. Therefore, when you do a search on a company hoping to find fair and evenhanded reviews to determine whether you want to buy its product or invest in it, the search engine will ultimately produce skewed results manufactured by digital PR firms and their flurry of “positive information.” A search engine, therefore, is only as good as the information that it scours, and if it feeds on PR, it will produce questionable results. When I studied computer science in college, there was a popular acronym known as GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. This means that you can’t necessarily trust a search engine to produce trustworthy results.

Search Engine Manipulation

One of the controversial issues surrounding search engines is SEME, or search engine manipulation effect. A few years ago, Politico.com featured an article that argued that Google could rig the 2016 presidential election by manipulating search engine results. In other words, the software engineers who create the algorithms that drive search engines could manipulate them in such a fashion as to skew search results in favor of or against a specific presidential candidate. Keep in mind, such a scenario wouldn’t require the leadership of a search engine company to manipulate such results but could be conducted by very small group of software engineers. Search engine companies such as Google have claimed that such SEME is not possible, and they seek to operate with transparency for the processes that inform their search engine algorithms. The chances are high that search engine companies do their best to operate in a fair and transparent manner. Nevertheless, this doesn’t preclude or eliminate the possibility that a company might engage in SEME. As Forrest Gump might theologize, “Sinners are as sinners do.” In other words, in a fallen world we should never put our absolute and unswerving trust in any organization.

Charting a Way Forward

Given these different factors, how can we chart a way forward as we use search engines? The first step is to be a discerning user of the internet in general and of search engines in particular. Recognize that they are not value neutral—people with opinions and value judgments design, feed, and even manipulate them. Sometimes people purposefully manipulate them because they have paid companies to ensure specific search results appear for ads or because of image scrubbing. The possibility also exists for subversive SEME. Once we realize these facts, a second step is to be thoroughly grounded in the Word of God so that we can engage the digital world in a discriminating way. The running joke I’ve heard is, “If it’s on the internet, it must be true!” While people often make this quip, sometimes jokes become reality and we lend too much credence to what we find on the internet through search engines. This is especially true in our study of the Bible. Rather than trying to sift through search engine results, we should find trustworthy sources—respected theologians, for example—that can help us learn good theology. In the end, we must ensure that we use the search engine and the search engine doesn’t use us.

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