On an episode of Joe Rogan’s popular podcast last year, he turned to a topic that has gripped right-wing communities and other Americans who feel skeptical about the pandemic: search engines.
“If I wanted to find specific cases about people who died from vaccine-related injuries, I had to go to DuckDuckGo,” Rogan said, referring to the small, privacy-focused search engine. “I wasn’t finding them on Google.”
Praise for DuckDuckGo has become a popular refrain during the pandemic among right-wing social media influencers and conspiracy theorists who question COVID-19 vaccines and push discredited coronavirus treatments. Some have posted screenshots showing that DuckDuckGo appears to surface more links favorable to their views than Google does.
In addition to Rogan, who has recently been at the center of an outcry about misinformation on his podcast, the search engine has received ringing endorsements from some of the world’s most-downloaded conservative podcasters, including Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino.
“Google is actively suppressing search results that don’t acquiesce to traditional viewpoints of the left,” Shapiro claimed in March 2021. “I recommend you install DuckDuckGo on your computer, rather than Google, to combat all this.”
The endorsements underscore how right-wing Americans and conspiracy theorists are shifting their online activity in response to greater moderation from tech giants like Google. They have increasingly embraced fledgling and sometimes fringe platforms like the chat app Telegram, the video streamer Rumble and even search engines like DuckDuckGo, seeking conditions that seem more favorable to their conspiracy theories and falsehoods.
That attention has put search engines in a difficult position, fielding queries from a growing set of Americans who seem increasingly gripped by conspiracy theories. They must now try to deliver relevant results for obscure search terms and avoid surfacing possible misinformation, all while steering clear of censorship claims.
DuckDuckGo, which has about 3% of the United States search market, holds little direct control over the links in its search results because they are generated by the search engine algorithm provided by Bing, which Microsoft owns. And all search engine algorithms are considered black boxes because the companies that create them do not completely disclose what informs their decisions.
In a statement, DuckDuckGo said it condemned “acts of disinformation” and said the company’s internal surveys showed that its users had a wide mix of political orientations. The company said it was also studying ways to limit the spread of false and misleading information.
For a glimpse at what conspiracy theorists encounter when they search online, The New York Times reviewed the top 20 search results on Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo for more than 30 conspiracy theories and right-wing topics. Search results can change over time and vary among users, but the comparisons provide a snapshot of what a single user might have seen on a typical day in mid-February.
For many terms, Bing and DuckDuckGo surfaced more untrustworthy websites than Google did, when results were compared with website ratings from the Global Disinformation Index, NewsGuard and research published in the journal Science. (While DuckDuckGo relies on Bing’s algorithm, their search results can differ.)
Search results on Google also included some untrustworthy websites, but they tended to be less common and lower on the search page.
The Times then reviewed a selection of those terms to check whether the content on the linked pages advanced the conspiracy theory or not. Those comparisons often showed even sharper differences between Google and its competitors.
Those findings matched results from two recent studies, which concluded that Bing’s algorithm surfaced content more supportive of conspiracy theories than Google did.
Differences among search engines in The Times’ analysis were clearest when the terms were specific. For instance, searching for “Satanist Democrats,” a theory that Democrats worship Satan or perform satanic rituals, surfaced several links advancing the conspiracy theory. But searching for more established claims, like the “QAnon” movement or terms unrelated to conspiracies, surfaced more trustworthy results from all search engines.
The role of search engines has grown as online conspiracy theorists have placed more value on what they call “doing your research,” which involves digging for content online to deepen conspiracy theories rather than relying on mainstream news outlets or government sources.
“Research, research, research,” a Telegram user wrote in a channel devoted to fighting vaccine mandates. “Stay AWAY from Google searches, only use DuckDuckGo.”
When people hunt for new information online, they tend to hold those findings in higher regard, said Ronald Robertson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Internet Observatory who has studied search engines.
“It’s a lot more convincing to look up information, find it and feel that sense of discovery about it,” he said. “You don’t really feel like someone’s telling you what the truth is, like you might on social media.”
DuckDuckGo said it “regularly” flagged problematic search terms with Bing so they could be addressed. After The Times shared some data on search results for numerous terms spread by conspiracy theorists, several of the search results changed entirely, shifting to favor more trustworthy sources.
“Finding the right balance between delivering authoritative results that match the intent of a search query and protecting users from being misled is a very challenging problem,” Bing said in a statement. “We won’t always get that balance just right, but that’s our goal.”
Kamyl Bazbaz, vice president of communications for DuckDuckGo, said that its results were often similar to Google’s and that most search terms reviewed by The Times received nearly no traffic.
While Google tended to surface links from trustworthy news sources more often, Bazbaz said adding a few more keywords to any given search usually surfaced the misleading information on Google anyway.
“If you’re looking for this stuff, no matter where you’re searching for it, you can find it,” he said.