Abyss or shelter? On the relevance of web search engines' search results when people google for suicide

Despite evidence that suicide rates can increase after suicides are widely reported in the media, appropriate depictions of suicide in the media can help people to overcome suicidal crises and can thus elicit preventive effects. We argue on the level of individual media users that a similar ambivalence can be postulated for search results on online suicide-related search queries. Importantly, the filter bubble hypothesis (Pariser, 2011) states that search results are biased by algorithms based on a person’s previous search behavior. In this study, we investigated whether suicide-related search queries, including either potentially suicide-preventive or -facilitative terms, influence subsequent search results. This might thus protect or harm suicidal Internet users. We utilized a 3 (search history: suicide-related harmful, suicide-related helpful, and suicide-unrelated) × 2 (reactive: clicking the top-most result link and no clicking) experimental design applying agent-based testing. While findings show no influences either of search histories or of reactivity on search results in a subsequent situation, the presentation of a helpline offer raises concerns about possible detrimental algorithmic decision-making: Algorithms “decided” whether or not to present a helpline, and this automated decision, then, followed the agent throughout the rest of the observation period. Implications for policy-making and search providers are discussed.

Haim, M., Arendt, F., & Scherr, S. (2017). Abyss or shelter? On the relevance of web search engines' search results when people google for suicide. Health Communication, 32(2), 253-258. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10410236.2015.1113484 (content_copy)

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