DuckDuckGo 'down-ranks' Russian disinformation. The search engine's users are not happy.

2 months ago 105

Tech companies are continuing to take action as Russia's war in Ukraine rages on. Search engine DuckDuckGo is the latest platform to take measures in the information war that's being battled online.

According to DuckDuckGo's founder and CEO, Gabriel Weinberg, the privacy-focused search engine has "down-ranked" websites in its search results that are "associated with Russian disinformation."

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"Like so many others I am sickened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the gigantic humanitarian crisis it continues to create. #StandWithUkraine️," Weinberg wrote in a tweet thread on his personal Twitter account explaining DuckDuckGo's actions.

To those unfamiliar with DuckDuckGo, the move may not feel too out of the ordinary. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have updated their policies to deal with disinformation about Russia's war. Search engines like Google and even Microsoft's Bing have taken actions against disinformation, too.

However, the overwhelming response to Weinberg's tweets about the "down-rankings" has been outrage from DuckDuckGo's user base. Some even claim to have already changed their default search engine preference due to this decision.

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"Can you see how swiftly most of your user base has been put off by this announcement?" reads a reply from @AdamantPluto. "Loyal long time supporters are talking about abandoning the service. Please reconsider your stance on this."

"This is not the way bro," replied @primalpoly. "We no longer trust anyone to decide for us what is 'misinformation.' Let us make our own calls about that."

Whenever the topic of alternative online platforms comes up, the focus is usually on social media services like so-called "free speech" networks Truth Social or Gettr. Yet perhaps the most successful alternative to Big Tech platforms is actually DuckDuckGo, which was founded in 2008 as an alternative to the big search engine giants like Google. The company has always focused on privacy and emphasized user privacy.

According to the New York Times, DuckDuckGo currently makes up around 3 percent of the U.S. search engine market share. It has gained traction over the past few years as conspiracy theorists and far-right internet users sought out alternative online platforms as a response to Big Tech companies' content moderation policies.

Unlike most other recent alternative platforms, though, DuckDuckGo was not built to placate users with a certain political ideology. Still, DuckDuckGo has found themselves lumped in with those platforms just by being an alternative platform in this day and age. So, whether DuckDuckGo likes it or not, many of those types of users have adopted the search engine.

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"The whole point of DuckDuckGo is for you to NOT do that," replied @JasonHayward87 to the DuckDuckGo down-rankings announcement.

"So the one thing that differentiates you from Google's uselessly politicized search - you're binning that," complained another user, @MorganColeBooks.

Weinberg responded to the previous reply on Twitter.

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"The whole point of DuckDuckGo is privacy," he stated. "The whole point of the search engine is to show more relevant content over less relevant content, and that is what we continue to do."

Privacy and data collection policies don't necessarily mean content policies. DuckDuckGo itself, however, has marketed the fact that its search engine results don't create a content "filter bubble" that's often found with personalized search results based on users' data.

DuckDuckGo's dedication to and frequent advertisement of its "unbiased results" – again, based on its privacy policies – have caused confusion among its user base after this most recent action. 

When it comes to content policies unrelated to user data, DuckDuckGo has actually moderated its search results before. The search engine already bans content farms on its platform due to the low-quality content often found on these websites.

DuckDuckGo is also often beholden to the content policies of Big Tech search engines, because that's where it actually gets its search results. For example, when the infamous "Tank Man" Chinese protest photo temporarily disappeared from Bing last year, the photo stopped appearing in DuckDuckGo's search results as well.

These nuances don't appear to affect how DuckDuckGo's users feel about Weinberg's announcement. At the time this piece was published, Weinberg's tweet about the "down-rank" has been replied to more than 10,000 times and received over 3,000 quote tweets. The tweet has less than 600 retweets. In Twitter lingo, this is called being "ratioed" – when a tweet receives more replies than shares, signaling the broader Twitter user base is not in agreement with what's being said.

In addition to down-ranking certain websites, Weinberg also announced that DuckDuckGo would display "news modules and information boxes" pointing users to "quality information" for certain breaking topics. Many platforms like Facebook and YouTube already provide a similar features. Google calls them "knowledge panels" on its search engine. However, this feature doesn't seem to have caused an uproar like DuckDuckGo's down-rankings have.

Mashable has reached out to DuckDuckGo for comment. We will update this piece when we hear back.

UPDATE: Mar. 10, 2022, 2:35 p.m. EST A DuckDuckGo spokesperson provided Mashable with a statement regarding its decision to "down-rank" Russian disinformation websites.

"The primary utility of a search engine is to provide access to accurate information," writes a DuckDuckGo spokesperson. "Disinformation sites that deliberately put out false information to intentionally mislead people directly cut against that utility...We are simply using the fact that these sites are engaging in active disinformation campaigns as a ranking signal that the content they produce is of lower quality, just like there are signals for spammy sites and other lower-quality content."

As mentioned earlier, this isn't the first time DuckDuckGo has moderated for quality. And as Protocol covered earlier this month, it's also not the first time DuckDuckGo has taken action regarding Russia's war in Ukraine. The company has recently "paused" its partnership with the Russian search engine Yandex. DuckDuckGo was using the service's results for some of its search queries in certain countries.

DuckDuckGo's full statement as provided to Mashable can be found below:

The primary utility of a search engine is to provide access to accurate information. Disinformation sites that deliberately put out false information to intentionally mislead people directly cut against that utility. Current examples are Russian state-sponsored media sites like RT and Sputnik. It's also important to note that down-ranking is different from censorship. We are simply using the fact that these sites are engaging in active disinformation campaigns as a ranking signal that the content they produce is of lower quality, just like there are signals for spammy sites and other lower-quality content. In addition to this approach, for newsworthy topics we're also continuing to highlight reputable news coverage and reliable “instant answers” at the top of our search results where they are seen and clicked the most. We're also in the process of thinking about other types of interventions. 

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