24 December 2020

Moderating search content


Moderating search content topic by Ines


Essay by Lawrence


For the purposes of this essay I will not use the names of search engines for trade mark reasons. But first the subject needs clarifying somewhat. The search content is basically the results we receive when we look up something on a search engine. And by moderating we basically mean filtering the content of our search so that we exclude unwanted information and more important information that is fake or biased.


The thing is that it is a very long way before we reach the situation when a search engine feeds us sinister content intended to harm us. This is not to say that the content of our search is just perfect and the latest content. So before we can consider what search engines can show us search engines have to make sure they are not including anything that is illegal or defamatory. There are such legitimate documents that maybe ought not to be shared in public. But then again why would someone want to search for something that is illegal?


Of course, censorship is quite an emotional subject, but I would argue that if we are going to get involved with something that is subject to censorship then maybe an internet search might not be the most prudent thing to do. But this has nothing to do with our subject because search engines can only deliver what exists on the internet and they have a reference to it, and what the local government allows them to show in their results. Sometimes there are ways round this censorship but it is not the scope of this essay to suggest workarounds.


As far as the content of the search is concerned a lot depends on what terms we are searching for. If we just search for the term “Christmas pudding” we’ll end up with some 170,000,000 search results. This is expected, given the time of year I am writing and the subject term. But consider the term “Christmas rebellion” with 60,100,000 search results. We can safely assume that some of these results are biased, include distorted information and might not include some relevant documents. We do know that the Christmas rebellion happened in 1831 on Christmas day when some 60,000 slaves in Jamaica rebelled against their conditions; the rebellion is also known as the Baptist War amongst others.


In effect, the more politically sensitive our search term is the more we are likely to come across some dubious results in our search. What also matters is not only what we search for, but how we search for what we are looking for. I can safely assume that when I searched for Christmas pudding in my browser hardly any documents in Spanish would have been included in the search. And even when I searched for Christmas rebellion I am sure that Spanish documents were way back in the results if at all. It wasn’t until I searched for “rebelión jamaica 1832 es” that I go a decent count of about 165,000 in Spanish entries about the rebellion.


This leads us to a key problem in philosophy: language. Now it is true that by now the search engine I use would “know” that I usually search for documents in English, and I need not reveal my language settings! But usually I do get a mix of documents in Spanish and English; which is annoying when I only want Spanish documents. It is no surprise that we usually do not receive links to other documents in other countries or languages unless we push the search engine for such results. But then again how many people would want to receive relevant documents in Japanese?


The language problem is precisely that search engines are biased towards the language for our computer is set for, the location we are making our search from, and of course the language of our search. For better or for worse English is the predominant language on the internet although this is mitigated by many companies having multi-language web sites. And today translation sites are quite useful for functional translations. However, for our purposes what matters is not the language of our search term but rather the language of the documents we are provided with.


We can safely assume that most of us can cope with one or two other languages besides our native language but there are far more languages on Earth than just what we know. In other words, the internet has got more documents in the public domain than we can possible read or can read. So for the search term “covid safety” I got 5,610,000,000 results; I then cheated a bit and translated “covid safety” into Japanese (covid安全) and got 277,000,000 results. I also got no documents in English when I searched the Japanese terms. The implication is that language plays an import part in our in our searching habits. We can assume that some of the 5.6billion English entries for “covid safety” include a number of suspicious documents, but I doubt we can find an equally offending document in the Japanese results unless we are fluent in Japanese.


As I have already mentioned we can get a decent translation of a document on the internet, but that does not mitigate the fact that we are limited by language of what we can access even if it was true. But going back to our standard searches language might also be an issue why we do not always find what we are looking for. And this gives us a false impression that maybe what we are looking for does not exist. Well, if we’re searching for a seriously strange term it might very well be that there is nothing to find about the term. But for normal searches we can assume that the information does exist we just have to know how to search for it.


The 140+ search engines available on the internet do not all do the same type of searches. Many are country specific, many others specialise in images or videos and of course there many science based search engines looking specifically at science databases. But one feature all search engines have is an advanced search feature. This feature could help filter results by date and a variety of logic terms such as AND or OR. In effect search engines have many functions to help us home in on the right document we are looking for. We can, therefore, safely assume that there must be some document somewhere on the internet that I am looking for.


Knowing how to search the internet is one of the key skills we need to have in the information age. The second most important skill is to be able to identify the correct information we are looking for. Scepticism in philosophy is not an ideology for self immobilisation but more like not trust anything or anyone until we are satisfied we’ve got what we are looking for. Today we need to know what we are looking for before we find it.


Best Lawrence



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