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Citizen scientists to drive independent assessment of search engines and social media advertising

Author Kathy Nickels
Date 17 December 2021

Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (ADM+S) are using citizen scientists to understand the impact of online search recommendations and advertising practices on Australian internet users.

The Australian Search Experience and The Australian Ad Observatory projects, launched earlier this year, are generating datasets that represent the online experiences of varied demographic groups in Australia.

Professor Julian Thomas, Director of the ADM+S Centre, said the projects are critical to enabling greater understanding of the operations of search engines and social media advertising platforms.

‘Australians use search engines and social media every day, but there is little public knowledge of how these platforms work, and misconceptions abound. Enlisting citizen scientists helps us analyse the automated systems that lie behind the content that individual users see,’ says Professor Thomas. ‘By using a citizen science approach, we can also increase awareness of the potential social impacts of these systems and encourage informed public debate about the regulation and future development of these systems.’

Both citizen science projects will be seeking participants until mid-2022.

The Australian Search Experience 

The Australian Search Experience project investigates the role of personalisation in shaping the information that Australian internet users find online.

Professor Axel Bruns, Australian Laureate Fellow and Professor in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) said the project studies the personalisation of search results for critical news and information, across key platforms including Google and YouTube, based on the profiles these platforms establish for their different users.

‘Search engine personalisation may be influencing your search results and consequently shaping what you know of the world. This can affect personal decisions as well as collective decisions as a society – from how we spend our money, to whom we vote for, and to our attitudes on critical issues like the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.’

Launched in July 2021, the Australian Search Experience project has reached over 1,000 participants and collected more than 209 million search results. Research is at an early stage, and more participants are needed.

Australian Internet users can visit The Australian Search Experience website to join the project, and download a simple browser plugin to their computer.

This project is a partnership between the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (ADM+S) and the international research and advocacy organisation AlgorithmWatch.

The Australian Ad Observatory 

The Australian Ad Observatory project delves into Facebook’s use of ‘dark ads’, which target users on the basis of detailed information collected about them online.

The project, led by Professor Mark Andrejevic from Monash University and Professor Daniel Angus from QUT, aims to improve transparency around Facebook’s use of advertising.

Facebook users can visit The Australian Ad Observatory website and install an extension on their laptop or desktop Web browser. This extension collects the ads the participants see when they visit Facebook. Users can use the plugin to review the ads they have encountered and gain an understanding of how they are being profiled as targets for particular types of products or services.

‘The goal is to provide some visibility into a form of advertising that is no longer publicly visible because it is delivered on personal devices based on large, private collections of data,’ said Professor Angus. Personal user data is often seen as a goldmine for advertisers and online advertising works very differently to other more traditional mediums.’

The project is working in collaboration with the Centre for Global Indigenous Futures at Macquarie University to find out more about how advertisers may be targeting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have historically been subjected to harmful stereotyping, misinformation campaigns, and predatory targeting by advertisers.