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With nearly 1.18 billion websites, the Internet has become an indispensable part of daily life, delivering a vast array of information, resources, and services. To access the internet, search engines such as Google or Bing are used. Unlike social media, which curates feeds using algorithms and user information, a search engine requires user input in the form of a question or query. Despite the vast amount of information available on the internet, some inputs return data voids, indicating a complete lack of information or a lack of credible information. There are various types of data voids, and one of them is data deficits, which occur when there is a high demand for information on a topic but little to no credible information.
According to a 2018 report, data voids occur "when obscure search queries have few associated results, making them ripe for exploitation by media manipulators with ideological, economic, or political agendas." Individuals and groups are using them to spread disinformation, manipulated content, and propaganda by redirecting people to sites containing anything from "ads and viruses to conspiracy theories." Data voids can be created on purpose by "manipulating information availability and the inner logic of search engines." According to the report, search engines are dealing with "media manipulators using search engine optimization techniques to get their website ranked highly or to have their videos recommended; they're also dealing with conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, and a variety of other extremist groups who see search algorithms as a tool for exposing people to problematic content."
After the Charleston Church Shooting in 2015, in which Dylann Roof killed nine black people, his online manifesto was discovered. His extreme ideologies can be traced back to what he saw online and his interactions with data voids. According to his manifesto, he Googled "black on white crimes" and discovered "pages upon pages of brutal black on white murders" that left him speechless. The terrifying excerpt from the manifesto is shown below.
However, research revealed that this was a data vacuum that white supremacists discovered, exploited, and manipulated in order to launch a targeted campaign against non-whites. Due to a lack of documentation, there was very little credible data on "black on white crimes."
Data void issues are exacerbated further in languages other than English, such as Arabic; another example of data void harms is related to female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt. Despite the fact that it is dangerous and even life-threatening, the act is still carried out, with long and short-term consequences. A search for FGM in Arabic yielded a website with false information about the practice, which could persuade a worried parent to circumcise their daughter without fully understanding the consequences. This topic's search user demographics were found in areas where FGM is widely practiced in Egypt, such as Al Sharqia, Al Qaliyubia, and Dakahlia.
Since the discovery of data voids in 2018, researchers have continued to expand their findings in order to increase understanding of the risks of data voids and how to mitigate them, including researchers at Harvard's Berkman Klein Center who evaluate the lifespans and harms of data voids, as well as research on search functions on social media platforms. Furthermore, search engines like Google are attempting to fill data gaps. In 2021, they published a notice on their blog highlighting search results that are "rapidly changing and may not contain reliable sources." They also expanded their Questions Hub, a tool that identifies data gaps and assists in coordinating efforts to fill them. While these efforts are forward-thinking, it is also critical to educate the general public about the phenomenon so that they do not accept any search result as credible or accurate information. To combat the phenomenon and avoid its exploitation, search engines and content creators must collaborate to produce high-quality content and identify vulnerabilities.