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Thursday, May 19, 2022

“Google Told Me So!” On the Bent Testimony of Search Engine Algorithms.

Narayanan, D., De Cremer, D.
Philos. Technol. 35, 22 (2022).


Search engines are important contemporary sources of information and contribute to shaping our beliefs about the world. Each time they are consulted, various algorithms filter and order content to show us relevant results for the inputted search query. Because these search engines are frequently and widely consulted, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the distinctively epistemic role that these algorithms play in the background of our online experiences. To aid in such understanding, this paper argues that search engine algorithms are providers of “bent testimony”—that, within certain contexts of interactions, users act as if these algorithms provide us with testimony—and acquire or alter beliefs on that basis. Specifically, we treat search engine algorithms as if they were asserting as true the content ordered at the top of a search results page—which has interesting parallels with how we might treat an ordinary testifier. As such, existing discussions in the philosophy of testimony can help us better understand and, in turn, improve our interactions with search engines. By explicating the mechanisms by which we come to accept this “bent testimony,” our paper discusses methods to help us control our epistemic reliance on search engine algorithms and clarifies the normative expectations one ought to place on the search engines that deploy these algorithms.


We have argued here that search engine algorithms provide us with a kind of testimony when they bring to fore some pieces of content for us to engage with and push behind others. This testimony is “bent,” because: 

(1) We treat these algorithms as if they are recommending to us the content that they feature at the top of a search results list, trusting that this content is more likely to contain true claims.

(2) There are disputed norms of communication about whether the recommendation of a piece of content counts as an assertion of its claims.

An understanding of this mechanism of bent testimony shows us how to control our reliance on it, if we so desired. Decreasing our reliance on this bent testimony entails decreasing our credence in the belief that the content ordered at the top of a search engine is any likelier to contain true claims. Further, we have argued that we ought to treat search engines as if they were testifiers. By having comparable expectations between search engines and ordinary testifiers, we would be able to pursue policy and legal interventions that befit the outsized role that these search engines seem to play when we acquire beliefs online.