Search engine, knowledge, and COVID-19

On: October 1, 2021
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It is not so surprising anymore to know that the globally used search engine Google is ineffective and unreliable in many aspects, despite the fact that it is still one of the main sources of information nowadays. After all, it is a platform runs by a for-profit company, and operates based on designed programming and data without complete neutral or objective purposes. Taking one step further, van Dijck points out that while Google Scholar has become the co-producer of academic knowledge, it “ranks sources on the basis of popularity rather than truth-value or relevance” (577). van Dijck not only demonstrates the inadequate quality of the Google Scholar that is trusted by numerous inexperienced college students, but also exemplifies that the technology does embed control, calculation and power, even in fields that are believed to be or should be neutral. But what about other kinds of knowledge, for instance, medical knowledge, or more specifically the knowledge for COVID-19? In this comment, I will look at how Google fails to deliver professional medical and COVID-19 knowledge, and how this ongoing pandemic interacts with the power in technology.

Although Google search cannot replace physicians and hospitals in that it fails to present the most reliable knowledge, a lot of people use it as a convenient quick check for their health problems. In fact, “77% of Americans use a search engine to seek online resources about their disease, treatment, and alternatives on their own” (Cai et al., 1). In their study, Cai and her colleagues show that only one-quarter of the dietary supplement search results had high quality, and “were not displayed first or near the top of the results, where they would be more likely to attract the searcher’s attention” (Cai et al., 4). Additionally, the results contain a “very large number of advertisements” (Cai et al., 5) that make it hard for patients to differentiate them with more reliable sources, but profitable for the search engine company that demands money for ranking in the front pages. As a more ongoing issue, the COVID-19 increases the possibility to look for medical help online and to find nearby clinics due to the inconvenience to go to the hospital in person. The queries related to COVID-19 hit all the marks that Google prioritizes, including 1. beneficial purpose, 2. Your Money Your Life, and 3. Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness, as Tama-Rutigliano mentions. However, Google also uses randomization to diversify its result to ensure “what a user sees is not necessarily what the users choose to see” (Makhortykh, et al., 2), making the accessibility to reliable information for COVID-19 depends on luck instead of on relevance or helpfulness. Again, this randomization reiterates the argument from van Dijck, that “knowledge is not simply conveyed to users, but is co-produced by search engines’ ranking systems and profiling systems, none of which are open to the rules of transparency, relevance and privacy” (van Dijck, 575). Hence, the randomization is not really “random,” but generated through the search engine, or technological mechanism, or the artificial platform itself. It is safe to say that Google, or search engine, or any technological mechanism are not completely neutral and objective in producing knowledge, even in the supposedly professional medical field, and in the queries regarding the current big issue of COVID-19.

There has been a lot of critique on the machines’ unreliability, but it is equally important to look at how exactly power exerts on these searching and ranking processes that create and allow access to knowledge, especially in the time of COVID-19. Google especially prioritizes “authoritative sources (e.g., government-related pages)” (Makhortykh, et al., 2) among others, leading to the reinforcement of ideological information published by governmental or authoritative departments. The choice of language also “have a substantial influence on randomization ((Makhortykh, et al., 6), causing the social, ethical and cultural differentiation of the accessibility to the knowledge of COVID-19. Technology in this way causes inequality of information accessibility. And algorithms shape the knowledge of users, and in turn, collecting user’s data, they are shaped by users, advertisers, companies and authoritative bodies as well. To better understand how COVID-19 interacts with the online information accessibility gap, it is useful to evaluate with the language of affordance, which is able to “recognize technology as efficacious, without failing prey to technological determinism” (Davis & James, 241). For instance, there is an interesting article talks about the “lower-income ZIP codes had a smaller increase in online health-related searches” (Thomas, “COVID-19 and the Widening Online Information Gap”) than higher-income communities. It demonstrates that, lower-income people, especially those with certain ethnical backgrounds such as Black and Hispanic communities are less able to access financial, educational and social benefits because they are mainly digital resources and require the ability to find useful sites in the search engine for education, unemployment, and health information. These users lack the internet access and the skill to look for information, but with the influence of COVID-19, more and more educational, economic and health resources operate in the online platforms, leading to a widening of knowledge gap due to socioeconomic conditions. Using the language of affordance, search engines “discourage” (Davis & James, 243) users from certain ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, very similar to the Robert Moses’ Low Parkway Bridges that stop poor people from entering the city. In the same way, COVID-19 prompts the senior population to search online for care and nursing, their access to useful knowledge may also be limited if they are not skillful enough to distinguish advertisements, the search engines “allow” (Davis & James, 244) them to expose to both.

In conclusion, search engines, specifically, Google lacks adequacy in presenting objective and professional medical and COVID-19 information, because technology is indispensable with power. The contemporary examples above not only demonstrate van Dijck’s argument that “information networks are the architecture of power distribution” (588), but also exemplify the urgent need to educate critical skills in using the search engine as a source of knowledge under the influence of COVID-19.

Works Cited

Cai, Hannah C., et al. ‘Using the GoogleTM Search Engine for Health Information: Is There a Problem? Case Study: Supplements for Cancer’. Current Developments in Nutrition, vol. 5, no. 2, Feb. 2021, p. nzab002. (Crossref),

Davis, Jenny L., and James B. Chouinard. “Theorizing Affordances: From Request to Refuse.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, vol. 36, no. 4, Dec. 2016, pp. 241–248, doi:10.1177/0270467617714944.

Makhortykh, Mykola, et al. ‘How Search Engines Disseminate Information about COVID-19 and Why They Should Do Better’. Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, May 2020. (Crossref),

Tama-Rutigliano, Karina. “Here’s How COVID-19 Affected U.S. Online Searches, Trends and Behavior in the Senior Care Industry.” McKnight’s Senior Living, 28 Sept. 2021,

Thomas, Liji, MD. “COVID-19 and the Widening Online Information Gap.” News-Medical.Net, 21 Sept. 2021,

van Dijck, José. ‘Search Engines and the Production of Academic Knowledge’. International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 13, no. 6, Nov. 2010, pp. 574–92. (Crossref),

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