FAT 2020

Title: The Case for Voter-Centered Audits of Search Engines during Political Elections

Authors: Eni Mustafaraj, Emma Lurie, Claire Devine

Published: 3rd ACM International Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency 2020


Search engines, by ranking a few links ahead of million others based on opaque rules, open themselves up to criticism of bias. Previous research has focused on measuring political bias of search engine algorithms to detect possible search engine manipulation effects on voters or unbalanced ideological representation in search results. Insofar that these concerns are related to the principle of fairness, this notion of fairness can be seen as explicitly oriented toward election candidates or political processes and only implicitly oriented toward the public at large. Thus, we ask the following research question: how should an auditing framework that is explicitly centered on the principle of ensuring and maximizing fairness for the public (i.e., voters) operate?

To answer this question, we qualitatively explore four datasets about elections and politics in the United States: 1) a survey of eligible U.S. voters about their information needs ahead of the 2018 U.S. elections, 2) a dataset of biased political phrases used in a large-scale Google audit ahead of the 2018 U.S. election, 3) Google’s “related searches” phrases for two groups of political candidates in the 2018 U.S. election (one group is composed entirely of women), and 4) autocomplete suggestions and result pages for a set of searches on the day of a statewide election in the U.S. state of Virginia in 2019. We find that voters have much broader information needs than the search engine audit literature has accounted for in the past, and that relying on political science theories of voter modeling provides a good starting point for informing the design of voter-centered audits.

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