Just Google it, and it will lay the answers to the universe before you.
Such perception around Google search and the reliance on the results it brings about is problematic when considered that those answers are only fragments of truth and are biased. The world’s primary search engine Google maintains an 86.86 percent market share (Statista, 2020), whose users tend to believe that the algorithm brings forth impartial results to whatever they search. This paper aims to point out how Google tells their version of a story by comparing it to the video game, Her Story (Sam Barlow, 2015). It further investigates how the way we engage with information sources is manipulated regardless of how autonomous we feel and how it affects our perception over them. It concludes that our interactions with such platforms reshape our minds and our understanding of the world; therefore, it is crucial to see its mechanisms.
Her Story is a video game designed in a way that allows reading it as an allegory of Google search. The player’s engagement with the game provides insights on people’s habits with the search motor as well as resembling some aspects of Google, which the everyday user tends to overlook. Her Story unravels as the player inputs keywords in the database search program called LOGIC to bring up interrogation footage that includes those words. The case is about a man who died, and the suspect is his wife. The idea is that any relevant information to crack the case can be found if the player is persistent enough to see all the footage. Google is generally perceived as a collective logic of the world wide web where any relevant information lays before the searcher. However, this is a faulty perception as even though millions of results come up, the ordinary Google searcher rarely checks the second page. The fact that there is an “I’m feeling lucky” option where the searcher is directly linked to the first result means that Google doesn’t want them to dig deeper. Accordingly, the first search result appears to reflect Google’s agenda and pushes unfavorable search results further down on the page where most searchers don’t check. In the game, the program grants access to a maximum number of five videos even if there are many more relevant footage. The player hasn’t any information based on what these five videos are chosen. The Google user should know that the results are listed in line with the corporate agenda.
The algorithmically driven software is biased when promoting search results as there are human decision-makers behind the system (Noble, 2018). Noble points out that terms such as “big data” and “algorithms” give the impression of bringing forth benign, neutral, or objective results. Still, in reality, the situation is quite the opposite. For instance, The Guardian’s article on Google’s involuntarily activated eavesdropping tool cannot be found when searched “Is Google spying on me?” on the search motor (The Hated One, 2018). Such gatekeepers not only prioritize the company’s benefits, but also decide what is appropriate to exist online. The Cleaners (dir. Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, 2018) is a documentary that reveals an industry where “digital cleaners” erase contents of violence, pornography, and politically troublesome information. Therefore, what makes a content inappropriate is defined by some anonymous people with unknown backgrounds, and not by a neutral party (if such exists). Google and the so-called worldwide web provide us with their version of the story, which is essential not to be considered the absolute reality.
Another issue Her Story renders visible around Google search results is the valuelessness of the relatively old resources. As the player keeps typing in search words to discover more videos, the game includes the icon of an eye to signify unseen footage. The icon helps the player be time-efficient and not watch the same videos again. The game provides insight into human behavior around disposable information and the understanding of digital documents degrading quickly because there is a lot (Baron, 2014). Similarly, Google remarks already visited sites in purple instead of blue. Behind it lies a consumerist ideology where the old and used does not matter anymore. In the game, once a video is seen, it loses its significance for the player. Even though they had seen it in a different context where they were less informed about the story, it is likely that the player won’t watch the videos more than once, as there seem to be hundreds of more footage yet to be discovered. Moreover, the game doesn’t reveal the total number of videos; therefore, it is unknown to the player if they have seen everything there is to see. To some extent, what one doesn’t search somewhat does not exist, similar to the overlooked Google search results beyond the first page.
The irony lies in that Her Story doesn’t bring about a coherent case even if all videos in the database are accessed. Some footage in the game gives conflicting information about the case and the suspect. Her name might be Hannah or Anna. In one video, she prefers her coffee with milk and sugar, but black with no sugar in another one. Such confrontation with the footage’s unreliability is disturbing for the player who assumes the real story is to be found within the videos. It is important to see that the way information is presented has direct influence on how it is perceived. While Google markets itself as the ultimate source of accurate information, it should be pointed out that the line between fake and real is getting blurry. Joey Skaggs, for instance, is an artist from New York who built a career on pranks. He creates false stories to attract media attention with the intention to show how media amplifies fake news and that people should not trust everything they see. While his means can be challenged as he also contributes to junk media, Skaggs’ works highlight how ridiculous stories (like a brothel for dogs) are believable when told in the right context.
The way people engage with information sources has a direct influence on its credibility. “Found footage” is another appealing context to the viewer, which has the potential to debunk theories and historical events. The firm reliance on such footage creates potential manipulation as it can easily be staged (Baron, 2014). Baron highlights that the “foundness” of documents can be faked to manipulate people’s views when considered that such media is created to corroborate “moon hoaxers” or “Holocaust deniers.” Arguably, there is a similar reliance on “discovered” information compared to the readily available ones. Several platforms require action to reach specific information, enhancing the credibility of the content as it is then “found” and not involuntarily “fed”.
For instance, the Kissinger Twins caption irrelevant footage with a fictional story of how the moon landing was faked in Jack Torrence Trip (2012). The cross-media story is an example of how certain information can subtly be fed to people when they are the ones to initiate the interaction. When the viewser puts an effort to get information (even if it is just moving their index), they feel as if they discovered something. The idea behind “discovery” is the same behind the trust in found footage. The story is laid out on a Tutuila Island map that seemingly invites the viewser to explore from any point, but the temporality assumes “left to right” direction. While the discoverer “unravels” what really happened in the 1960s like a pirate exploring an exotic island, the platform already has assumptions on how they will engage with the media. It is as if they are doing the digging for the truth, but they have no control over what they find, and in this case, they are given fictional information. The interactive story shows how people are made feel autonomous in their decision making, where in reality, they are manipulated based on certain assumptions.
Similarly, assumptions on the Google searcher is critical for the platform to thrive as they depend on users’ predictability. Google not only predicts the direction our eyes and index tend to go in order to know where to place relevant information, but its revenues depend on assumptions based on our habits which is the main mechanism behind ads. Nevertheless, if you don’t pay for it, then you are the product. The searchers’ engagement provides the necessary information to base the assumptions. Accordingly, Her Story includes a search history section where it reveals how the interaction is tracked. As the player tries to figure out “her story,” the platform gains more information about them. Not being the search object gives the impression of an incognito experience, whereas the searcher provides the key data for Google. In Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2014), the scientist that develops self-conscious AI says that the search engines learn about how people think, which is more important than what they think.
Predictability is at the core of the human mind. Plato’s understanding of human memory claims that it exists “to recover the likeness of what one already knows of the world of appearance through experience” (Branigan, 2014). Similarly, a data analyst from YouTube explains how they experimented with bringing random content to the users, but it wasn’t successful as people were not choosing to click on the videos that do not reflect their already established perspective or idea set (Computerphile, 2014). Therefore, the human mind is inclined to be attracted to what complies with the already existing knowledge attained within Google’s corporate agenda. While it is getting more difficult to discern between trustworthy and inauthentic information, it is significant to know that our sources of information are manipulative and biased even though they give the impression that we summon all truth with a click. In reality, we are a bunch of manipulated gods, if anything.
Baron, Jaimie “Chapter 2: Archival Fabrications: Simulating, Manipulating, Misusing, and Debunking the Found Document” from The Archive Effect, 2014, Taylor and Francis Group.
Branigan, Edward “If–Then–Else: Memory and the Path Not Taken.” in Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, the Arts, and the Humanities, ed. by Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson. 2014. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 45-79
Clement, J. “Global market share of search engines 2010-2020”, Sep 2, 2020, Statista. <https://www.statista.com/statistics/216573/worldwide-market-share-of-search-engines/#:~:text=Ever%20since%20the%20introduction%20of,share%20as%20of%20July%202020.>
Noble, Safiya Umoja. “Algorithms of Oppression : How Search Engines Reinforce Racism,” 2018, New York University Press.
Block, Hans and Moritz Riesewieck. The Cleaners. 2018
Garland, Alex. Ex Machina. 2014
“Her Story” by Sam Barlow, 2015.
“Jack Torrence Trip” by The Kissinger Twins. 2012. <http://www.jacktorrancetrip.space/>.
“Google vs DuckDuckGo | Search engine manipulation, censorship and why you should switch” by The Hated One. 2018. YouTube. <https://youtu.be/SrsCEbi5N7Y>.
“YouTube’s Secret Algorithm – Computerphile,” by Computerphile. April 24, 2014 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsCeNCVb-d8>