Equal access to online information? Google’s suicide-prevention disparities may amplify a global digital divide

Scherr, Sebastian; Haim, Mario; Arendt, Florian
New Media & Society

Worldwide, people profit from equally accessible online health information via search engines. Therefore, equal access to health information is a global imperative. We studied one specific scenario, in which Google functions as a gatekeeper when people seek suicide-related information using both helpful and harmful suicide-related search terms. To help prevent suicides, Google implemented a “suicide-prevention result” (SPR) at the very top of such search results. While this effort deserves credit, the present investigation compiled evidence that the SPR is not equally displayed to all users. Using a virtual agent-based testing methodology, a set of 3 studies in 11 countries found that the presentation of the SPR varies depending on where people search for suicide-related information. Language is a key factor explaining these differences. Google’s algorithms thereby contribute to a global digital divide in online health-information access with possibly lethal consequences. Higher and globally balanced display frequencies are desirable.