In the early years of the internet, it was revolutionary to have a world of information just a click away from anyone, anywhere, anytime. Many hoped this inherently democratic technology could lead to better-informed citizens more easily participating in debate, elections and public discourse.
Today, though, many observers are concerned that search algorithms and social media are undermining the quality of online information people see. They worry that bad information may be weakening democracy in the digital age.
The problems include online services conveying fake news, splitting users into “filter bubbles” of like-minded people and enabling users to unwittingly lock themselves up in virtual echo chambers that reinforce their own biases.
These concerns are much discussed, but have not yet been thoroughly studied. What research does exist has typically been limited to a single platform, such Twitter or Facebook. Our study of search and politics in seven nations – which surveyed the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain in January 2017 – found these concerns to be overstated, if not wrong. In fact, many internet users trust search to help them find the best information, check other sources and discover new information in ways that can burst filter bubbles and open echo chambers.