Apple’s Safari, one of the internet’s most common web browsers, has been surfacing debunked conspiracies, shock videos, along with false information via its “Siri Suggested Websites” feature. Such results raise questions about the company’s ability to monitor for low-quality information, along with provide another example of the problems platforms run into when relying on algorithms to police the internet.
As of yesterday, if you typed “Pizzagate” into Apple’s Safari, the browser’s “Siri Suggested Website” prominently offered users a link to a YouTube video with the title “PIZZAGATE, BIGGEST SCANDAL EVER!!!” by conspiracy theorist David Seaman (the video doesn’t play, since Seaman’s channel was taken down for violating YouTube’s terms of service). The search results appeared on multiple versions of Safari.
Apple removed all examples of the questionable Siri Suggested sites provided to the item by BuzzFeed News.
“Siri Suggested Websites come via content on the web along with we provide curation to help avoid inappropriate sites. We also remove any inappropriate suggestions whenever we become aware of them, as we have with these. We will continue to work to provide high-quality results along with users can email results they feel are inappropriate to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Safari isn’t the only browser to try to anticipate its users’ searches; Google has long delivered autocomplete search suggestions, which have occasionally been gamed or surfaced inappropriate content. However, Safari’s Siri Suggested Website feature goes one step further, autocompleting along with suggesting a site for users to visit. Frequently, Siri Suggested dials up a Wikipedia page (as the item does when you search for Apple CEO Tim Cook).
yet when BuzzFeed News entered incomplete search terms of which might suggest contentious or conspiratorial topics (as shown below), the search algorithms directed us toward low-quality websites, message boards, or YouTube conspiracy videos rather than reliable information or debunks about those topics. Meanwhile, Google does not feature such unreliable pages in its top search results.
Those suggested results matter since Safari is actually one of the internet’s most common web browsers — some estimates suggest the item has captured over 10% of the browser market share.
additional searches for conspiracies or common fake news tropes returned similarly low-quality results.
The Siri Suggested problem seems to stem via what researchers call a “data void,” which is actually what happens when a term doesn’t have “natural informative results” along with manipulators seize upon the item. Many of the sites surfaced by the Siri Suggested feature came via conspiracy or junk sites hastily assembled to fill of which void.