Nowadays, people take a lot of their information from the internet, but what do you do when the internet is lying?
Taking a crack at pseudoscience
If you go to Google and search for [cure for cancer], the top organic result (after you go past the ads) is a website called Cancer Tutor. They basically say that carrot and beetroot juice are the best cures for cancer, and medicine and science is just wrong. Here's one of the many gems on this website:
"The general public is so brainwashed they think Nature is too stupid to be a medical doctor. Yet scientists only understand about 3 percent of human DNA after studying it since 1953. This means scientists still don't have a clue what 97 percent of all human DNA does."
You probably get the point by now. It's yet another fear-mongering pseudoscience website. They also advertise some products or "treatments" so they also want to profit from deceiving people -- fits the profile quite well. But this isn't about debunking another one of these websites; the problem here is that this is the first result. If something ranks that high, then it has to be trustworthy, right?
Well... no, not at all.
How Google works
A third of all Google searches click on the first result. Since 12,000 people Google "cure for cancer" every month, we can expect a lot of people to end up on that bogus page. In fact, according to Similar Web, Cancer Tutor, the bogus website, gets over 500,000 hits a month. All while saying things like this:
"Many people have cured their newly diagnosed cancer by using a very healthy diet and drinking a quart of carrot juice (with a little beet juice mixed in) every day. That is all they did."
The thing is, Google (just like Facebook and Bing) only recently started cracking down on pseudoscience or blatantly fake websites. If something shows up, even if it's the first result or even if it's shared by millions of people -- it doesn't mean it's true.
Aside from Google, no one really knows how the ranking algorithm works, but we have some good pointers. Being knowledgeable about a topic can help. Having a coherent website also helps. Getting links from other websites definitely helps. But Google does all that automatically, through a "robot," and for the robot, it can be quite difficult to tell what's knowledgeable and what's not. It looks at the words, sees a lot of them relating to cancer and medicine, so it might give it a green light -- it might even rank it high. More recently (earlier this year), Google announced they will penalize inaccurate and offensive results but this is obviously not working properly yet.
This is obviously extra-important for sensitive queries such as this one. Google's Gary Illyes, the go-to person for fighting spam, admits it's important to look into this type of issue, but doesn't mention any concrete solution.
I think it's worth looking into it, low volume or not. This is a sensitive health query, we need to do really well in this query category
— Gary "鯨理／경리" Illyes (@methode) August 1, 2017
The only good thing is that Google also includes a panel on the right side, featuring actual medical information.
Facebook is also taking similar steps, but their algorithm is also still flawed. For instance, a satire website from Romania was wrongly penalized because Facebook couldn't tell it was satire and thought it was a misleading news outlet.
So where does this leave us? We're living in a post-truth world where facts don't matter as much as they used to, and are often replaced by feelings or simply by loud shouts. You can convince people that carrot juice cures cancer, that climate change isn't real, or even that the planet is flat. All you need to do is repeat it many times in a form that people can buy and you're good to go. But how do we combat these lies?
An ever growing number of people take their information from the internet, so that's clearly one of the places where we have to start. As mentioned above, the two internet giants (Facebook and Google) are both trying to fight fake and misleading outlets, but that's a slow process, and like the heads of a hydra, such articles will always find a new way to emerge. So while this can work (and is necessary) in the short run, in the long run, we need a more sustainable solution. There's also the risk of these tweaks going too far and falling into censorship, and that's definitely not the way to go. As study after study has shown, the most effective tool against indoctrination is critical thinking -- and that's something neither Google nor Facebook can do for us. We have to do it ourselves.