The Part Played by Search in Shaping Political Opinion: The Quello Search Project

There is increasing debate over the ways in which search algorithms and patterns of user behavior around Internet search tools may support or undermine the quality and diversity of information accessed by citizens in ways that could effect the vitality of democratic processes for the better or worse. For example, does search help citizens to obtain better information about political issues, or does it bias what citizens know in ways that could distort democratic choice? Answers to such questions are most often anchored in deterministic perspectives on technology and overly simplistic models of the democratic process. Moreover, there is limited empirical research on these issues, creating a need for theoretically informed empirical research focused on the actual role of search in political opinion formation in liberal democratic political systems of the digital age.

The Quello Search Project focuses on the role of online search in shaping access to and the influence of political information. Data is being gathered from six EU countries and the US, using Web-based online surveys as well as aggregated trace data from search engines. The MSU research team is managing the project, which include academics from the University of Oxford and the University of Ottawa as well as MSU.

The major source of data will be a series of surveys. The four-person project team has designed a survey questionnaire to address a wide array of questions about when and how Internet users employ search to find general information as well as specifically political information. The survey questions include the following topics:

• how use of various media, including search engines, are related to political opinions;

• how users vary in their use of search and their interest in politics;

• how different types of Internet users perceive search in comparison to other media, such as social media, broadcast and print news;

• how search impacts the views of Internet users, such as whether there is any real or perceived bias in what users see online;

• whether search engines play a major or minor role in opinion formation;

• whether personalization of search is understood, and whether this is viewed as a benefit or harm by users.

The team is working with ICM, an opinion research firm in London, UK, to field the survey questionnaire online across Europe and the US. ICM is an experienced and well-regarded firm with links with survey research organizations across Europe and North America that have created online panels of survey respondents. These panels allow us to obtain responses from individuals with known characteristics, such as age and gender, ensuring that the respondents more closely represent the online population in each nation.

The EU countries will be Britain, Germany, France, Poland, Spain, and Italy. In each country, the survey will obtain valid responses from more than 2,000 Internet users, for a total sample of over 14,000 individuals.

The second source of data will be aggregated trace data from search engines, such as Google Trends. This data will enable the team to gather information on how people search for political information in comparison with searches for other information. We will be able to analyze these data by country for comparisons within the EU and with the US. We will look for global and nationally specific patterns in the kinds of terms that are most often searched for and differences in types of political searches. These findings will complement and expand on the survey research results on the part played by search in shaping political opinions.

The project began in the fall of 2016 and will be completed with a final report in early 2017. A series of academic analyses and publications will then be conducted on the basis of this cross-national comparative data set along with the complementary trace data analyses.

This research project is supported by Google, and is being conducted by a multidisciplinary team that has previously worked together on a number of projects at the University of Oxford and Michigan State University. The team is comprised of researchers from the fields of political science, sociology, Internet studies, and information & communication sciences. The research team also brings together strong expertise in the theories and methodologies used to analyze and discuss the research questions. The project team includes:

• William Dutton, Quello Center, Michigan State University, USA
• Bianca Reisdorf, Quello Center, MSU, USA
• Elizabeth Dubois, University of Ottawa, Canada
• Grant Blank, University of Oxford, Internet Institute (OII), UK

Two research assistants are supporting the project, including:
• Craig Robertson, Information and Media Doctoral Program, MSU, USA
• Sabrina Ahmad, Joint Honours B.A. Communications and Sociology, University of Ottawa, Canada

Project Documents and Papers

Survey Questionnaire Instrument (English Version) is posted here: QGS161129 V2.2 FINAL 211216 b_w.