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.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 15, 2020.