‘Easier to manipulate’: Bing searches will drive disinformation, experts warn

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Any large-scale take-up of the Bing search engine as an alternative to Google could drive a “seismic change” in the spread of online disinformation, experts have warned.

The Morrison government has talked up the Microsoft-owned search engine as the next-best thing if Google makes good on a threat to abandon Australia over a controversial media bargaining code.

But Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer in digital media at Queensland University of Technology, says the government risks undermining efforts to combat disinformation online if it turns to Bing.

“There’s plenty of evidence to show the search engine results that come out of Bing are often problematic,” Dr Graham told The New Daily.

“If Bing went from being used by maybe 2 per cent of the population to 90 per cent [like Google] then we could see a seismic change in the volume of misinformation and disinformation online,” he added.

Microsoft has a chequered past with search. A 2019 audit of Bing by safety startup AntiToxin found it suggested child exploitation material to users at an alarming rate, while research from Stanford University later that year found top search results contained much more disinformation than Google.

Stanford’s Daniel Bush found Bing was vulnerable to misinformation about public health, returning six anti-vaccination websites in its first 50 results on searches for vaccine autism – Google returned zero.

“[I’d] be worried about the quality of search results if Bing was the only search engine I had at my disposal,” Dr Bush told The New Daily.

“For all its faults, Google has quite sophisticated content-moderation tools that it can use to prevent data voids (such as that surrounding COVID-19) from being exploited, and – at least at the time we did this study – Bing appeared either not to have such tools or not to use them as effectively,” he said.

A Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement the company was “continually working to update and refine our customer experiences, and we encourage people to report concerns”.

“The role of the search engine is to find and provide relevant content that exists from across the web based on the search query,” the spokesperson said.

“One of the key challenges of search is when little credible content exists. This is a very real problem in the industry and one we are working hard to address every day.

“Where possible and appropriate, we aim to highlight our news answers and other features that are designed to ensure that people are able to make a fully informed decision regarding the content in search results, and we always strive to rank authoritative, relevant results higher.”

Bing as Google alternative

Microsoft offered Bing  to the government on Wednesday as a replacement for Google, pledging its support for a plan to force digital platforms to pay media companies for news – a policy Google and Facebook have baulked at.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher responded by meeting Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to discuss a deal last week.

But Dr Graham said a turn to Bing would be irresponsible, particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, when many Australians are turning to search engines for the facts.

“I don’t think the problem of misinformation and disinformation is at the forefront of the government’s mind,” he said.

Their approach is to let the free market decide and [Bing] is the next competitor … but there’s a big jump down from Google to Bing.’’

Mr Fletcher declined to comment when asked if he had sought assurances about disinformation on Bing from Microsoft executives.

“The Morrison government is committed to combatting false material on digital platforms,” a spokesperson from his office said.

“During COVID-19, we’ve seen firsthand the harm disinformation can cause as it spreads rapidly online. It can create public confusion and is particularly harmful to those most vulnerable in our community.”

Microsoft president Brad Smith met with PM Scott Morrison to discuss Bing. Photo: AAP

Although Google has threatened to leave Australia, its exit is far from guaranteed and could merely be a bargaining tactic.

That said, Mr Morrison has pledged to move ahead with the code, with or without Google, in a move that could call the US technology giant’s bluff.

Mr Morrison said he sent Google the “best possible signals” in a meeting with executives on Thursday morning.

“At the end of the day, they understand that Australia sets the rules for how these things operate. And I was very clear about how I saw this playing out,” he said in a statement.

What’s wrong with Bing?

Bing’s performance relative to Google comes down to the nuts and bolts underneath the hood, or in more modern terms, code and algorithms.

Harry Sanders, director of the Australian Web Industry Association (AWIA), agreed Bing’s search engine isn’t as advanced at serving quality and trustworthy results as Google’s, despite its efforts to replicate the market leader.

Mr Sanders said it’s much easier for businesses or other organisations to manipulate which search results rank highest on Bing.

He said Google’s program emphasises credible sources cited by authoritative websites, whereas Bing is more likely to deliver results based on quantity of sources, which are often lower quality.

Mr Fletcher declined to comment on Bing and the “hypothetical” Google’s exit. Photo: AAP

Daniel Angus, an associate professor at QUT in Digital Communication, said size matters when it comes to search and Google is by far the biggest game in town.

“Google is a more mature product, its been the de-facto service for decades,” he told The New Daily.

On the flip side, Dr Argus said Microsoft has a more robust approach to user privacy than Google, adopting a set of ethics guidelines called FATE (Fairness, Accountability, Transparency and Ethics in AI).

Although Bing would not be the only search engine available to Australians if Google left, Dr Argus said we’d be moving into the unknown, because disinformation researchers have to date focused their efforts on Google, not smaller players like Bing and DuckDuckGo.

In a statement, a Microsoft spokesperson said Bing is focused on improving its algorithms, rather than artificially intervening in search results, and that its continually working to “refine” its customer experience.

“The role of the search engine is to find and provide relevant content that exists from across the web based on the search query. One of the key challenges of search is when little credible content exists. This is a very real problem in the industry and one we are working hard to address every day,” the spokesperson said.

“Where possible and appropriate, we aim to highlight our news answers and other features that are designed to ensure that people are able to make a fully informed decision regarding the content in search results, and we always strive to rank authoritative, relevant results higher.”

The government has previously asked digital platforms to develop their own voluntary code of practice on disinformation, overseen by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

The code, which is still in the consultation phase, was written by the Digital Industry Group, a non-profit lobbyist for Google, Facebook and Twitter.

“As part of this work, we are monitoring changes in the market, as well as platforms’ policies to address mis- and disinformation,” an ACMA spokesperson said in a statement.

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