A Google spokesperson said the differences in results were not due to censorship, and content about the Tiananmen Square massacre is available through Google search in any language or locale. Tourist imagery is gaining in importance in some cases, the spokesperson said, when the search engine detects an intention to travel, which is more likely for searchers closer to Beijing or typed in Chinese. Searching for Tiananmen Square from Thailand or the United States using Google’s Chinese language setting also results in recent and crisp images of the historic site.
“We localize the results to your preferred region and language so you can quickly access the most reliable information,” the spokesperson said. Google users can adjust their own results by adjusting their location settings and language.
Search Atlas collaborators have also created maps and visualizations showing how search results can differ around the world. One shows how the search for “God” images produces bearded Christian images in Europe and the Americas, Buddha images in some Asian countries, and Arabic script for Allah in the Persian Gulf and North Africa. Is. The Google spokesperson said the results reflect how its translation service converts the English term “God” into words with more specific meanings for certain languages, such as Allah in Arabic.
Other information boundaries drawn by researchers do not directly correspond to national or linguistic boundaries. The findings on “how to tackle climate change” tend to divide island nations and countries on continents. In European countries such as Germany, the most common words in Google results concerned policy measures such as energy conservation and international agreements; for islands such as Mauritius and the Philippines, the results were more likely to cite the enormity and immediacy of the threat of climate change, or damage such as sea level rise.
Search Atlas was presented last month at the Designing Interactive Systems academic conference; its creators are testing a private beta version of the service and considering how to expand access.
Search Atlas cannot reveal why different versions of Google present the world differently. The company’s lucrative ranking systems are tightly controlled, and the company says little about how it adjusts results based on a person’s geography, language, or activity.
Regardless of the exact reason Google shows or doesn’t show particular results, they have a power that is all too easily overlooked, says Ye, co-creator of Search Atlas. “People ask search engines for things they would never ask of anyone, and the things they see in Google results can be life changing,” says Ye. “It could be ‘How do I get an abortion?’ restaurants near you, or how you vote, or get vaccinated.
WIRED’s own experiences showed how people in neighboring countries could be directed by Google to very different information on a hot topic. When WIRED asked Search Atlas about the ongoing war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Google’s Ethiopia edition pointed to Facebook pages and blogs that criticized Western diplomatic pressure to defuse the conflict, suggesting that the United States and others were trying to weaken Ethiopia. The results for neighboring Kenya and the US version of Google highlighted explanatory news coverage from sources such as the BBC and The New York Times.
Ochigame and Ye are not the first to point out that search engines are not neutral players. Their project was in part inspired by the work of Safiya Noble, co-founder and co-director of the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry at UCLA. Her book 2018 Oppression algorithms explored how Google searches using words such as “Black” or “Hispanic” produced results reflecting and reinforcing societal biases against some marginalized people.
Noble says the project could provide a way to explain the true nature of search engines to a wider audience. “It’s very difficult to make visible the ways that search engines are not democratic,” she says.