Auditing Google's Search Headlines as a Potential Gateway to Misleading Content: Evidence from the 2020 U.S. Election

Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing, Internet, Media and Content and Search and Advertising

Article Snapshot


M. Ryan Calo, Kate Starbird, Morgan Wack, Jevin West, Jason Young, Himanshu Zade and Yuanrui Zhang


Journal of Online Trust and Safety, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 1-29, 2022


An audit of Google search results shows that videos promoted more election-related misinformation than news stories or ads. Users’ choice of search terms affected the quality of information displayed.

Policy Relevance

Audits of search results can help search engines limit the spread of misinformation.

Main Points

  • During the 2020 U.S. presidential election, online misinformation perpetuated a false belief in election fraud; nearly 65% of Republican voters believed the election results were illegitimate.
  • An audit of 800,000 headlines produced by Google’s search engine in response to searches for election-related keywords shows that videos are the most problematic form of election disinformation, compared to news stories and ads.
  • Researchers examined whether the location of the users affected search results.
    • Voters in swing states saw more campaign ads, but the search results did not differ in quality.
    • Google did not create information bubbles catering to regional bias.
  • Users’ choice of search terms affected the quality of the results; using conspiracy-related search keywords like “voter fraud” (rather than a neutral term like “ballots”) resulted in display of more misinformation.
  • Legacy news sites such as The Washington Post and Fox News promoted most of the total headlines promoting doubt, but partisan sites like promoted the highest percentage of misinformation.
  • Most ads did not seem harmful to perceptions of election integrity.
  • Affixing simple headlines to content can help auditors identify problematic videos, so search engines can ensure that misinformation is not displayed prominently; search engines should not attempt to censor political content.
  • To help design future audits, search engines should be required by law to provide researchers with access to anonymized data.

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