Google steering nanotechnology public debate toward more health-themed issues, study suggests by Aarti Kapoor

Madison, WISCONSIN — Online audiences are increasingly searching for and finding results on health-related topics when seeking nanotechnology content on Google, according to a recent study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). 

The researchers — who analyzed Google's data for nanotechnology-related search terms and the associated Google suggestions from October 2008 to September 2009 — noted in their study that this trend may have an impact on how the public perceives nanotechnology, and may increasingly shift the public debate away from economic or scientific considerations.

“Google suggestions are meant to be helpful, but from a public discourse perspective it is worrisome,” said Dominique Brossard, life sciences communication professor at UW-Madison, and co-author of the study published recently in Materials Today.

“Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google to sort search results, in part, based on how popular particular sites were.  For science information, that means that surfers may be offered the most popular results rather than the ones that best represent the current state of the science,” she added. 

Self-reinforcing spiral

Brossard pointed out that this trend may create a self-reinforcing spiral that pushes nanotechnology and health to the top of Google’s search results or suggested search terms, even though health may just be a small part of what nanotechnology is about. 

“Some people are missing out on the larger picture of this technology. In all likelihood this is not unique to nanotechnology, and we could see similar self-reinforcing spirals in all sorts of areas of public discourse,” Brossard said.

As an example, the researchers of the study noted that plant biotechnology experienced a similar trend as U.S. media coverage initially focused on technological and economic development, but, by the late 1990s, negatively focused on health and ethical risks. The current trend in online searching and content of nanotechnology, if cast in a negative frame, may adversely affect investments and regulatory policy of this technology in a similar way.

Heuristic cues

Peter Ladwig, a UW-Madison life sciences communication graduate student and also co-author of the study, explained that the manner in which the media frames an issue is just one way the public forms attitudes about emerging technologies, including nanotechnology. 

“Past research has found that individuals (also) rely on other heuristics like level of religiosity, deference to scientific authority, and political ideology when forming attitudes about nanotechnology,” he said. 

“People may reference these cues more heavily when making decisions about health-related nanotechnology issues because health is an important concern for most individuals,” Ladwig added.

Future plans

The team plans to continue its research in this area, and is already collecting more data from Google.  

“On average, online audiences have more knowledge about nanotechnology, so it will be interesting to track changes in how the technology is presented on the Internet,” Ladwig said. 

More information: The paper, “Narrowing the nano discourse?,” was published in the May issue of Materials Today. Other authors of the study are Dietram A. Scheufele, Bret Shaw and Ashley A. Anderson – all from the Department of Life Sciences Communication, UW-Madison. 

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