Nov 1, 2019

danah boyd Warns Against Disinformation in “Data Voids”

From Nieman Lab

Watch your language: “Data voids” on the web have opened a door to manipulators and other disinformation pushers

By Joshua Benton

In 2004, a company called DarkBlue announced a phrase — “nigritude ultramarine” — that didn't appear anywhere on the web. For the next few weeks after, SEO consultants engaged in a competition to try to make one of their wepages be the top Google search result for that phrase.

The phenomenon was finally given a name last year: a data void. Microsoft's Michael Golebiewski coined the term “to describe search engine queries that turn up little to no results, especially when the query is rather obscure, or not searched often.” Like, say, “nigritude ultramarine.”

In a new report this week, Golebiewski and co-author danah boyd examine the topic of data voids and the dangers they pose for manipulation by those seeking to spread disinformation. The report reads, “These voids occur when obscure search queries have few results associated with them, making them ripe for exploitation by media manipulators with ideological, economic, or political agendas.”

The issue poses several questions. When an algorithm has to suddenly determine what’s the best information about something, what signals should it favor? The ones coming from established authorities? Or technical tricks from those trying to manipulate results?


danah boyd received her Ph.D. from the UC Berkeley School of Information and is the founder of the Data & Society Research Institute. She is also a researcher at Microsoft and a visiting professor at New York University.

Last updated:

June 12, 2020