Search engines no longer merely shape public understanding and access to the content of the World Wide Web: they shape public understanding of the world. Search engine results produced by secret, corporate-curated “search scripts” of algorithmic and human activity influence societies’ understanding of history, and current events. Society’s growing reliance on online platforms for information about current and historical events raises the stakes of search engines’ content moderation practices for information providers and seekers and society. Public controversies over the results returned by search engines to politically and morally charged queries evidence the growing importance, and politics, of corporations’ content moderation activities.
Despite public concern with the political and moral impact of search engine results, search engine providers have resisted requests to alter their content moderation practices, responding instead with explanations, directions, and assistance that place responsibility for altering search results on information providers and seekers.
This essay explores a public controversy around the results Google’s search engine returned to the query “did the holocaust happen” in order to understand how different imaginaries of the script of search contribute to the production of problematic results and shape perceptions of how to allocate responsibility for fixing it.