Content Warning: Abortion, Rape, Sexual Assualt
Written By: Margherita Massarenti and Sofia Rastelli
Edited By: Anna Mohan
Knowledge is power.
Throughout human history, knowledge has been stolen, censored, and manipulated. Its guardians kept weaving and prescribing their storytelling to the public, in effect moulding the common thinking. From the pyres of forbidden books under the Spanish Inquisition to the alphabetical reformation by order of Mao Zedong, the path towards gaining control over knowledge has been swarming with cruel acts and subtle manipulations.
Nowadays, in the information era, the Internet is the largest, most encompassing archive of human knowledge, with its iconic search engine behemoth, Google. While it may be more democratic and inclusive than the previous examples, the digital space is far from being above power relations. As long as beacons of knowledge are designed and produced by people, it will be influenced by their own cultural values, norms, and beliefs. The Internet is political. The subjectivity of human nature inevitably emerges, in the form of biases. What to do with these biases - whether to acknowledge, hide, maintain or counter them - is the result of political choices. In politics, to put it simply, there are people with power and the interest to maintain it, and people without it. Women belong historically to the disempowered side of humanity.
What happens, then, when the knowledge made available online concerns women’s health, rights and freedom?
What if it concerns one of the most delicate of the gender battlefields: abortion?
Four female students majoring in New Media and Digital Studies at the University of Amsterdam addressed this question by comparing Google and Wikipedia results on abortion in three different European countries: Poland, Italy and the Netherlands, respectively representing strict, conservative, progressive politics and legislations on the subject.
In Poland, women have been the driving force of an unprecedented flood of protests since October 2020. These intensified and grew more turbulent after a near-total ban on abortion was formally put into effect, leaving abortions available only in cases of rape, incest or if the mothers health is at severe risk. In contrast, the Netherlands belongs to the most progressive cluster of European countries in terms of abortion law, offering medical procedure on-demand with the decision fully belonging to women up to the 22nd week of pregnancy. Standing somewhat between these two extremities, Italy has been included in the second portion of the research focussing on Wikipedia for its controversial positioning in the issue. In Italy legal provisions on abortion often friction with religious and cultural traditions. The attempt to integrate these different sentiments lead to the inclusion of a “conscience clause” in the law, resulting in a large portion of professionals refusing to operate.
The Uva study starts exploring the effects of these political backgrounds on source ranking on Google.
Google applies a “service profile” model where data is the bargaining chip. Soon enough, the engine grew beyond being a deliverer of information, evolving into an information guardian itself, providing users with tailored results based on their personal data. These include personal geographic locations, or ‘geotags’.
Googling “abortion” in the Netherlands, Italy and Poland highlight different templates, therefore matching the specific cultural ‘bubble’ of the inquirer. Accordingly, Google results prioritise references that are the most conventional and traditional in the location of the inquirer, while favouring social niching too. To put it simply, what appears on your screen is the result of the Google algorithm's calculation of your views and the views that are dominant in your area of location, leaving you in the dark, and unaware of alternative information that another user might have access to. Such mechanisms blatantly reinforce ideological infrastructures on a national level, tending to maintain the narrative of the mainstream powerful elite and to undermine minorities.
To put it simply, what appears on your screen is the result of the Google algorithm's calculation of your views and the views that are dominant in your area of location, leaving you in the dark, and unaware of alternative information that another user might have access to.
Ultimately, it undermines the overall web as an inclusive democratic space.
Proving this bias is relatively easy, and to do so the UvA research first focuses on differences between the specific locations of Poland and the Netherlands. * When seeking information on abortion (respectively, “aborcja” in Polish and “abortus” in Dutch) one can rapidly see results on the two nations’ legal stances on the discussion.
On one hand, sources asking “what should I do if I consider abortion?” and “I am unintendedly pregnant: what should I do?” showcase how the Dutch engine prioritises practical and informative pages, emphasizing that “abortion is a woman’s choice” within the frame of a “human rights” issue. On the other hand, the Polish variant mainly mentions “home”, “pharmacological” and “illegal" types of abortion, alongside providing an overview of the national, far from accommodating, legislation.
Geo-cultural bias however does not end at the search engine frontier. Appearing at the top of the results were the language-specific Wikipedia pages on abortion (van Baaren et al., 2020). In line with other studies placing Wikipedia in the top ten results of the 95% of the English queries, the community-driven online encyclopaedia can be used as a source of cultural reference and particularism.
In this respect, the UvA research considers the Wikipedia variants of Poland, Italy and the Netherlands. Here, significant linguistic and cultural specificities surface, showing that dominant social views within a country have a leading role in the interpretation of the law and can, in turn, influence women's capability to access abortion.
Interesting enough, differences already come across from the very first line of the script, precisely in the definition of the practice. While according to the Polish page abortion ‘usually results in the death of embryo or foetus’, on the Dutch one it is neutrally presented as the ‘premature termination of pregnancy’, to which the Italian definition adds ‘with the removal of the foetus/embryo from the uterus. Upon closer inspection, the differences are quite palpable. The Polish explicit use of the term ‘death’ is representative of the conservative Catholic pressure that inside politics operates under, featuring the religious narrative that the abortion of a foetus equates to the murder of potential life.
Further along, a look over the hyperlinks across the pages’ introductions, the Italian and Dutch websites enlist rape and incest when mentioning the criminal conditions for which abortion is made legal even in less progressive countries. Only in the Italian edition, these are characterized as ‘special cases’. ‘Special’ in this context has a belittling connotation, conveying a sense of exceptionality that collides with the fact that, in 2019, 88% of Italian women experienced some form of assault and 1 out of 4 Italians believe the victims’ demeanour/clothing is responsible for it.
Rape and incest mentions are instead completely absent from the Polish page, despite being almost the only instances left for a woman to legally access termination procedures in the country. Still from the legal point of view, on the Polish Wikipedia hyperlinks can be found about the laws of “nasciturus”, namely the rights recognized to the unborn human being according to the Roman Law, and “abortus provocaturus criminalis”, providing information about the punishment of illegal abortion in the Polish Penal Code. This further testifies the radical political aversion to pro-choice beliefs that persists in the country to this day.
Even catching a glimpse at the three tables of content highlights crucial differences. While the Dutch Wikipedia focuses more on medical technicalities and considers ‘ethical positions’ with a comprehensive reflection on diverse cultural and religious stances, the Italian Wikipedia does not cover abortion from other religions' perspective - a choice that is arguably rooted in the predominantly roman-catholic historical orientation of the country. On a different note, the Polish page maintains a relatively global perspective, enlisting countries and their policies and, most curiously, a section giving a panoramic of all religions against abortion.
Finally, from a visual perspective, only the Dutch and Italian pages show medical images. The Polish page instead shows a picture of a fetus including detailed human characteristics, while the Dutch Wikipedia page uses drawings of the fetus in different stages of the pregnancy. The picture can be viewed as more confronting or shocking, and the drawing as more descriptive.
Examining Google and Wikipedia results on abortion unveils how, despite efforts to maintain neutrality, algorithms do build a hierarchy of information. Even in those cases like Italy in which legislative progress has been made, the Uva research has shown that the female body and its right to abortion aren’t policed only by laws. A much more subtle process of policing occurs through a sum of different social factors and cultural operations. Today, a lot of this process happens online.
While Google lost its original browser role, Wikipedia fails its core policy of being an encyclopaedic neutral viewpoint, thus bringing into question whether these are online applications, or rather online media companies liable for political and propagandistic partisanship.
With tech still being a predominantly male industry, the engineering of algorithms and the production of information that run the most influential websites and platforms on the internet are likely to maintain the status quo and the patriarchy. New Media Studies are increasingly showing us how the political influence behind the production and circulation of knowledge online transcends the boundaries of the virtual. This impacts our cognitive perception of reality, influencing how we categorize the world, develop moral judgements on what is good and what bad and, ultimately, form our political opinions.
Awareness of these mechanisms is important to act upon biases and be critical when approaching informational monopolies that prevent free, neutral and liberating knowledge for women and all disempowered folks.
Awareness reminds us to always ask a question:
Who guards the guardians?
* Note on Methodology: In order to ensure as few interferences as possible, Google settings were disabled with personal customizations, thereafter 50 results per query were taken into consideration, with their URLs scraped, compared and contrasted with one another and ultimately actors were classified into distinct categories (e.g. news/media, governmental/institutional and so on).