I wrote somewhere once that
thinking with the majority is an excellent description of Google. Because one of the ways something rises to the top of your search results is that lots of other people have already looked at it, liked or linked to it.
thinking with the majority comes from a remark by A.A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh.
I wrote somewhere once that the third-rate mind was only happy when it was thinking with the majority, the second-rate mind was only happy when it was thinking with the minority, and the first-rate mind was only happy when it was thinking.
When I wrote about this topic previously, I thought that experienced users of Google and other search engines ought to be aware of how search rankings operated and some of the ways they could be gamed, and to be suitably critical of the
fiction functioning as truth yielded by an internet search. And I never imagined that intelligent people would be satisfied with just thinking with the majority. (Although I now suspect that Milne may have been having a dig at his friend G.K. Chesterton.)
The sociologist Francesca Tripodi has been studying how people carry out
research on the Internet, especially on politically charged topics. She observes how many people (even those we might expect to know better) are happy to regard search engines as a valid research tool, regarding the most popular webpages as having been verified by the
wisdom of crowds. In her 2018 report for Data and Society, Tripodi quotes a journalist (!) explicitly articulating this belief.
I literally type it in Google, and read the first three to five articles that pop up, because those are the ones that are obviously the most clicked and the most read, if they’re at the top of the list, or the most popular news outlets. So, I want to get a good sense of what other people are reading. So, that’s pretty much my go-to.
In other words, thinking with the majority.
However, Professor Tripodi introduces a further twist. She demonstrates that politically slanted search terms produce politically slanted results, and if you go onto your favourite search engine with a politically motivated phrase, you are likely to see results that validate that phrase. She also notes that this phenomenon is not unique to Google, but is shared by all internet search engines including DuckDuckGo.
And this creates opportunities for politically motivated actors to plant phrases (perhaps into so-called data voids) to serve as attractors for those individuals who fondly imagine they are carrying out their own independent research. Tripodi observes a common idea that one should research a topic oneself rather than relying on experts, which she compares with the Protestant ethic of bible study and scriptural inference. And this idea seems particularly popular with those who identify themselves as thinking with the minority (sometimes called red pill thinking).
Zeus’ inscrutable decree
Permits the will-to-disagree
To be pandemic.
Tripodi explains her findings in the following videos
- Truth and Denial: Searching for Information in the Digital Age (Social Science Matrix @ UC Berkeley, April 2021)
- Reimagine the Internet 2 (Knight First Amendment Institute @ Columbia University, May 2021)
Tripodi has also presented evidence to the US Senate Judiciary Committee
- July 16, 2019 – Google and Censorship through Search Engines
- April 10, 2019 – Technological Censorship and Public Discourse
Joan Donovan, The True Costs of Misinformation – Producing Moral and Technical Order in a Time of Pandemonium (Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, January 2020)
Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd, Data Voids: Where Missing Data Can Easily Be Exploited (Data and Society, Updated version October 2019)
Francesca Tripodi, Searching for Alternative Facts: Analyzing Scriptural Inference in Conservative News Practices (Data and Society, May 2018)