In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, internet platforms have taken all sorts of action, like blocking accounts related to Russian state media or pulling out of the country altogether. But one move that seems far smaller has prompted a major backlash for DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused search engine that has become popular on the right as an alternative to Google.
Last week, Gabriel Weinberg announced that his company would be combating Russian disinformation. “Like so many others I am sickened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the gigantic humanitarian crisis it continues to create,” he wrote on Twitter. “At DuckDuckGo, we’ve been rolling out search updates that down-rank sites associated with Russian disinformation.” Although the move was more or less in line with how other major online platforms have been responding to the Russian invasion, pushback from DuckDuckGo’s user base has been pronounced. More than 30,000 users on Twitter have responded to Weinberg’s post with largely negative comments about the decision, accusing the company of engaging in censorship and injecting bias into search results. Breitbart ran a piece attacking DuckDuckGo as “Diet Google,” and high-profile libertarian YouTubers have also told their followers to stop using it.
DuckDuckGo’s executives have been trying to quell the unrest. “The whole point of DuckDuckGo is privacy,” Weinberg wrote back to one of his critics. “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.” The company also released an official statement, which read in part, “It’s also important to note that down-ranking is different from censorship. We are simply using the fact that 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.”
DuckDuckGo didn’t originally set out to be a conservative-friendly “free speech” platform, even though many of its users seem to see it that way. Its core promise to users is that it won’t track searches in order to curate results, a practice that Google relies on. As Google has faced accusations of de-prioritizing conservative content, though, users have also flocked to DuckDuckGo for what they perhaps mistakenly saw as unmoderated search results.
Aside from trying to preserve user privacy, Weinberg has also argued that DuckDuckGo allows users to break out of their filter bubbles and get exposure to challenging viewpoints because the search results aren’t tailored to their preconceived notions. A focus on privacy isn’t quite the same as having more permissive moderation policies like Parler and Gettr, though DuckDuckGo hasn’t been particularly clear in making that distinction and continues to market its services as “unbiased” and “neutral” without trying to dispel the misconceptions its users may have. Given the haziness around the company’s mission and how it fits into the current war in Ukraine, I talked to a couple of people about why the decision to downrank Russian disinformation led them to ditch DuckDuckGo.
Priyanshu Lata, a student at Pareek College in Jaipur, India, had just switched from using Google to DuckDuckGo when he saw Weinberg’s tweets. “The main problem with Google is that it was showing biased results,” he said. “If DuckDuckGo starts tampering with the results, they start downranking content, what they see as disinformation, why would we use DuckDuckGo? Google has already been doing this for a long time.” Lata used DuckDuckGo for a few days and found that the user interface and search results weren’t quite as good as Google’s, but he thought that the benefits were worth the annoyances. Once he learned of DuckDuckGo’s move to combat Russian disinformation, he didn’t think it was worth those relative downgrades anymore and went back to using Google. “Russia’s creating misinformation, no doubt about that, but there’s no god protocol that will decide what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. However, when I asked what completely neutral metrics should be used to rank search results, given that relevancy is inherently subjective, he wasn’t quite sure. Lata pointed vaguely to economic incentives or popularity, but ultimately said, “That’s a hard task.”
Keith Knight, a contributor to the nonprofit Libertarian Institute, started using DuckDuckGo about five years ago “when YouTube/Google started removing people for thought crimes.” He recently switched to using another privacy-focused search engine called Brave after learning of DuckDuckGo’s decision. Knight’s main grievance with DuckDuckGo’s decision is that he thinks major institutions and media outlets are also spreading comparable amounts of disinformation, so users aren’t getting the whole story if platforms are focusing only on some types of false narratives but not others.
However, search engines are inherently about ranking results, so some sources of information are necessarily going to be prioritized over others. In some ways, the search algorithm is already going to be picking winners and losers in the marketplace of ideas. When asked how a search engine could rank results in a completely unbiased way, Knight couldn’t quite put his finger on it either. “I don’t specifically know how the algorithm could be designed, because if it’s just popularity … then you know it’s not necessarily truth at the top. It’s popularity at the top,” he said, though he later added that pure popularity would at least be better than trying to factor in disinformation in the results.
Knight ultimately landed on transparency surrounding how the algorithms work as a possible solution to his concerns of bias. “That sort of transparency, that might increase the likelihood that people know they’re not getting necessarily something objective, because it’s damn near impossible,” he said. Knight even mused that if DuckDuckGo had just explicitly said that it was on the side of the “American establishment” and the “Ukrainian people,” he might’ve seen that as more “morally acceptable” than trying to describe its downranking initiatives as trying to combat disinformation. He said, “So long as there’s this transparency, then there’s no illusion that there’s the correct stuff and the incorrect stuff.”
Update, March 17, 2022, 5:30 p.m.: DuckDuckGo sent a statement after this piece was published.
There are approximately 100 million people worldwide who use DuckDuckGo. In every survey we run, the vast majority of users say they use DuckDuckGo for privacy above any other reason, and they span the political spectrum. In regards to having “unbiased results,” any time we’ve referenced this term has been in relation to helping people escape search filter bubbles. The filter bubble is a consequence of getting personalized results that are slanted towards what the algorithm thinks you will click on the most based on your search history. Since we don’t track users, we don’t have search histories at all and therefore don’t alter results based on that.