Imbalanced Agendas: Search engines still in the shadows in Sweden
In a recent Medium contribution, several scholars appealed for more robust digital literacy education. They pointed out the ways that one researcher’s poor understanding and use of Google search for research and knowledge production on a topic of pressing importance (intimate gendered violence in the context of COVID-19 pandemic) could result in buzz and news reporting, but in the long run may endanger the credibility of an entire field of knowledge. The post warned against tech fetishism and poorly understood digital methods in search engine research.
It is surprising that knowledge about services like search and, among researchers, specific digital methodologies in search engine research lag so far behind, considering the dominant role of search in our everyday life and culture. Search is the way we live: “we no longer learn by heart; we look it up” (Lovink 2011, 146). Yet naïveté regarding the vast consequences of search among both experts and lay audiences — consequences such as the products of biased search and the polarizing potential of search — raises serious concern.
We set out to explore how often Swedish legacy media reports on the topic of search engines. How much interest do funding bodies in Sweden show in funding research on search? What do Swedish people think about search engines?
Our effort was to preliminarily map out the position of search and search engines in terms of national news coverage, as indicative of the media agenda; in terms of funded research projects on the topic, indicative of the research agenda; and in terms of the public opinion on the matter of search and search engines, indicative of the public agenda. We decided to compare interest in search and search engines across these three agendas with interest in social media in order to sketch a comparison that addressed two distinct though closely connected aspects of our digital lives: search and social media.
First, to map out the media agenda, we employed the Retriever Research database, which hosts the largest media archive in Northern Europe. We selected a timeframe stretching from January 1, 2016 to January 1, 2021, and looked for articles in a heterogeneous sample of legacy media (urban and national press, subscribed and sold by numbers, morning and tabloid press with different political leanings): left-leaning Aftonbladet; independent liberal Dagens Nyheter; conservative Svenska Dagbladet. We performed our searches in Swedish, using truncated queries in quotation marks.
Our query “sökmotor*” (“search engine*”) returned 310 hits, of which 304 unique hits (see chart below). Of these, most articles were published in 2018 (77 hits). Indeed, news about search engines peaked in March that year (15 hits). Among the three selected media, Svenska Dagbladet published the most on the topic (157 hits), followed by Dagens Nyheter (107 hits), and lastly by Aftonbladet (only 46 hits).
We interpret these results as indicative of a media agenda with little interest in covering the issue of search engines.
To map out the research agenda, we employed the Swecris database, which hosts information about research projects that have received funding from either governmental or private funding bodies in Sweden. We performed our queries on May 20, 2021, at a time when the database had recently migrated to its present domain. Consequently, the system was still undergoing fine-tuning and thus our queries were narrower in scope — they were limited to search at the level of project titles, as keyword search at the level of abstracts was not yet possible**. Although not comprehensive, we consider that the findings offer a useful snapshot of the Swedish research agenda. For our queries, we maintained the timeframe of our earlier searches, from 2016 to 2021.
We used for our query both search words in English (“search engine”), as well as in Swedish (“sökmotor”), and compared our findings to make sure we do not miss any entries. Surprisingly, our query returned only one hit, namely the project entitled “Filter Bubbles and Ideological Segregation Online: Do We Need Regulation of Search Engines?” that was granted funding in 2019. In turn, our query about social media, which used the search “social medi*” returned 13 relevant hits, from a two-day workshop to a three-year research project. These 13 projects covered a variety of issues, such as social media and surveillance, racism, political polarization, and big data analytics; social media use among teachers; and social media and mental illness. We interpret these results as indicative of a research agenda which privileges scholarly inquiries into social media and is less well developed in terms of research on search engines (second bar chart above).
To better understand how the public feels about information search, we turned to the reports published by the Swedish Internet Foundation (Internetstiftelsen), which is an independent, private foundation working for “the positive development of the internet”. These reports are annual surveys of “the internet habits of Swedish people, how the use of the internet is developing and the digitization of society”. For consistency, we examined the original reports published in Swedish published between 2016 to 2020. Initially, we used “sökmotor*” (“search engine*”) as keyword for our queries, but this yielded 0 hits in the reports from 2016, 2018, 2019, and 2020, and only 5 hits in 2017. We noticed that the reports instead refer to Google as the default search engine. In turn, “sociala medier” (“social media”) are allocated a specific chapter in the reports from 2016, 2018, 2019, and 2020, while the report from 2017 refers generally to kommunikation och sociala plattformar (communication and social platforms). The reports from 2016 and 2017 note that Swedes are concerned about their personal integrity being impinged upon by both Google and Facebook — the two tech companies that epitomize search engines and social media in the reports. But a clear majority of them use Google search daily. The reports from 2019 and 2020 also note that Swedes are concerned with surveillance by tech companies like Google and Facebook. We interpret these results as indicative of a public agenda which is increasingly preoccupied with issues of personal integrity and surveillance by the biggest tech companies.
There is a convergence in the media and research agendas that privileges issues concerning social media and plays down the importance of search and search engine literacy. At the same time, the public agenda indicates growing concern among Swedish people worried that their integrity is being impinged upon by big tech companies like Facebook and Google. It is time for search engines research to come out of the shadows. Search researchers can inform the media and research agendas with critical insights on search engines’ impact onto people’s digital integrity as well as other topics of public concern around digital literacy.
** The database search optimization now seems to be completed, which enables searches within both project tiles and abstracts (as of June 7, 2021).