Algorithmically Curated Lies: How Search Engines Handle Misinformation about US Biolabs in Ukraine

Kuznetsova, Elizaveta
Makhortykh, Mykola
Sydorova, Maryna
Urman, Aleksandra
Vitulano, Ilaria
Stolze, Martha
ISSN der Zeitschrift

The growing volume of online content prompts the need for adopting algorithmic systems of information curation. These systems range from web search engines to recommender systems and are integral for helping users stay informed about important societal developments. However, unlike journalistic editing the algorithmic information curation systems (AICSs) are known to be subject to different forms of malperformance which make them vulnerable to possible manipulation. The risk of manipulation is particularly prominent in the case when AICSs have to deal with information about false claims that underpin propaganda campaigns of authoritarian regimes. Using as a case study of the Russian disinformation campaign concerning the US biolabs in Ukraine, we investigate how one of the most commonly used forms of AICSs - i.e. web search engines - curate misinformation-related content. For this aim, we conduct virtual agent-based algorithm audits of Google, Bing, and Yandex search outputs in June 2022. Our findings highlight the troubling performance of search engines. Even though some search engines, like Google, were less likely to return misinformation results, across all languages and locations, the three search engines still mentioned or promoted a considerable share of false content (33% on Google; 44% on Bing, and 70% on Yandex). We also find significant disparities in misinformation exposure based on the language of search, with all search engines presenting a higher number of false stories in Russian. Location matters as well with users from Germany being more likely to be exposed to search results promoting false information. These observations stress the possibility of AICSs being vulnerable to manipulation, in particular in the case of the unfolding propaganda campaigns, and underline the importance of monitoring performance of these systems to prevent it.

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Kuznetsova, E., Makhortykh, M., Sydorova, M., Urman, A., Vitulano, I., & Stolze, M. (2024). Algorithmically Curated Lies: How Search Engines Handle Misinformation about US Biolabs in Ukraine.