The Story of two Countries through the Lens of Search

UNHCR launched the video campaign “Search for Syria? What do you see?” on their Facebook page recently. It’s a truly impactful comparison depicting how the lives of Swedish and Syrian people are portrayed differently in Google Image search results. The video appeals to the viewer by addressing just how different the images are when searching for “home Sweden” or “children Sweden” compared to “home Syria” or “children Syria”.

Relevancy determines the order of search results for distinct keywords or phrases. Algorithms factor in signals or “clues”, such as terms on websites, topicality or regional determinants, to produce the most pertinent results. Clearly, the news and flood of media coming in from the Syrian conflict led to nothing but images of war and misery to be chosen as the most relevant. Search results have an impact on how we think about and perceive a conflict, a country, and its citizens. Generic words, such as “house” or “car” are put into a particular context and put into the light of the current situation – bad or good.

Search algorithms are powerful mechanisms enabling us to access more relevant information. But how is relevancy defined here? Showing these images depicts the most up-to-date reality. In other words, if search results are used to define a word or portray a situation, they are often determined more by factors such as recency than historic context or cultural meaning. How would search results for “home Syria” look like, if you would not factor in recency for example? We would probably see more pictures of old houses lining the market streets in Damascus. The only problem here is that factoring in cultural meaning or historic context requires a more subjective understanding of relevancy. It is an interesting thought to consider and an important concept to remember when interpreting search results particularly in the context of current crises. Factors and signals act as filters, as you are perceiving reality through the lens of Search…


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