How ‘Correct The Internet’ is tackling search’s gender bias
The campaign that seeks to remove the gender bias that powers search results has gone global as the women sports stars who the internet ignores fight to improve the facts. The Drum speaks to the Kiwi team behind the campaign, finding out why non-gendered search results matter.
The Correct the Internet campaign aims to address the gender bias in search algorthims
If you type 'When is the next world cup?' into Google, the search engine will tell you that it's the 2026 Fifa World Cup, which is correct if you are talking about the next men's world cup. However, the correct answer is actually this year, 2023, when the Women's World Cup is hosted in Australia and New Zealand.
While some might scoff at this and call it pedantic, the unavoidable fact is that the search engine's most popular responses were factually incorrect. For at least five pages of search results, I gave up my search at that point.
This example is merely one of the hundreds of examples of search engines serving gendered results to questions that are factually incorrect. This is how the idea for the Correct The Internet campaign was generated in the first place.
"We were trying to find facts about the Fifa Women's World Cup, "explains Gary Steele, the chief creative officer of DDB Aotearoa NZ, which has joined forces with Rebecca Sowden, a former New Zealand Football player and the founder of women's sports marketing consultancy Team Heroine to create the campaign.
"We were trying to look at all the data around the game, the best players, and we were surprised that every time we searched anything, we could never get the correct results.
"When we asked who has scored the most international goals in football, the search result was Cristiano Ronaldo. But, when you look at the facts, it is Christine Sinclair, and with a massive difference, she's got 190 goals compared to his 118 goals. The surprising thing is there are another ten women players who have also scored more goals than Cristiano Ronaldo, but they're not even featured on search results.
"We found this mind-blowing and the more we dived into it, we realized it's not just football, it's every single sport you can think of it. The results will always list a man, whereas factually and statistically there is almost always a sportswoman who has better stats," says Steele.
The Correct the Internet campaign is on a mission to change this in a bid to provide women's sports and sportswomen with the recognition they deserve.
According to Sowden, the search listings are creating a negative cycle that perpetuates the visibility issues the sport continues to struggle with. This lack of visibility trickles down to ratings, attendance, sponsorships and pay, and it's a cycle that keeps going around in circles.
Steele says the issue is also bigger than women's sports.
"If you search on any search engine, 'what is the tallest building in the world?' you will get the Burj Khalifa. The factually correct answer. The same should happen when you search 'who has the most international goals'. It should be the factual result. Wherever you are, whoever you are, what kind of gender you are, what race you are, no matter where you're from, it should give you the factual information, because that's what Google and search engines are about."
There's a concern that the gender bias influencing search algorithms and the results that are served is also affecting the facts.
"The youth of today are searching Google for school projects, and that means they may be doing projects based on the wrong information. And that's important for us," adds Steele.
Awareness & action
The Correct The Internet campaign has two elements; the first aims to drive widespread awareness of the issue - that factual information isn't being delivered at the right time to the right people.
To further bolster awareness of the campaign, Correct The Internet has teamed up with the UN as part of its commitments to developing and empowering women through digital innovation and information technology. The partnership with the UN aims to help drive the campaign to broader audiences and perfectly coincides with this year's theme for International Women's Day, Digit-ALL.
The campaign's second element is helping to put pressure on the engineering side of search engines to provide feedback on the results to drive tangible change. To do this, the team have built a tool that works for Google, Bing, Baidu and Yahoo and allows people to give feedback on the search results to correct the incorrect results.
Sowden and Steele are keen to point out that the problem is not just Google, as the issue is widespread, with all the search engine algorithms needing correction.
"The important thing," says Sowden. "Is giving them the ammunition and the tools to work together to correct this, because it's actually us humans who've created this, search engines are just reflecting and just giving us what we want."
Steele agrees, "I think ultimately, Correct the Internet wants to work with as many people as possible, to raise as much awareness as possible. Firstly so people don't just take what they see as a correct fact and also to work with the search engines to deliver the correct facts."
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Helping elevate women's sport
The campaign also hopes to take advantage of the current momentum around women's sports and help to elevate it among sports fans globally. This is particularly pertinent for Sowden, who, as a former player, is frustrated about the lack of support and recognition of women's sports.
The campaign aims to take advantage of the growing momentum around the women's games following the massive upswell of support of New Zealand's Black Ferns in the Rugby World Cup and Britain's Lionesses in the European Championships.
"We felt the momentum during the Rugby World Cup, with the Euros and upcoming World Cup Down Under. We knew the US football team, were in New Zealand to play the Ferns, so we decided it was great time to launch. The US team are the epitome of gender equality activists and [US striker] Alex Morgan instantly picked up the campaign, that was the launchpad, it took off from there," says Sowden.
The campaign has garnered a considerable response globally, with support from sports stars Billie Jean King and Ruby Tui, women's sports associations, sports teams and other organizations. However, Sowden admits seeing more sportsmen support this would be great.
"Yeah, I mean, I would love to see more. But, regardless of gender, I think this is a society-wide issue. It's not men versus women. It's for the benefit of society. So we would love to see more male athletes and men's associations get behind this."
Steele agrees. "The whole reason we're in this situation is the human bias has affected the algorithms, and that's a human bias, male and female.
"The more people that respond and make sportswomen more visible, the more that becomes normal, the more these sponsorships get up to speed, the more the pay gap closes, and all these issues will start just to be washed away it becomes normalized.
"That's where you get the power of the human race to change something, and it's going to take all of us. The campaign tagline is: 'Together, we created it. Together, We can fix it.' It's not insurmountable. We need people to be aware."