Since 2011 Google shows suicide helpline numbers at the top of results for searches like “effective suicide methods”. Similarly, since 2017, Facebook is monitoring posts containing references to self-harm and suicide, and sends those users relevant resources.
While the intentions are good – and helpline numbers proved to save lives – the algorithms used to provide information relevant to health are often ineffective, and do not perform consistently around the world.
This is what emerged from a study published in the New Media & Society journal earlier this year. The researchers – Sebastian Scherr at the University of Leuven and Mario Haim and Florian Arendt at the University of Munich - found that Google’s algorithms suffer from a bias that results in a divide in health information access.
The researchers created a list of 28 keywords and phrases related to suicide and had them translated accurately by 9 other researchers from different countries. For 21 days they generated millions of searches and kept track of whether helpline numbers showed up.
To their surprise, these results did not appear, as one might logically expect, in countries with high suicide rates. In South Korea, which has one of the world’s highest suicide rates, advice boxes showed up only in 20% of the searches. It seemed that advice boxes were simply more prone to appear to English speaking countries.
“If you’re in an English-speaking country, you have over a 90% chance of seeing these results — but Google operates differently depending on which language you use,” Scherr said.
Through one of its spokesperson (that asked not to be quoted directly), Google said that the company is tweaking these algorithms. Implementing helpline numbers and advice boxes requires cooperation from local organizations, which may not be available. The help box service does not have global coverage at the moment, Google explained. Google is actively working on new locations, but the process requires time.
Suicide prevention might be a secondary objective for Google. The company greatest efforts are directed into their high-profile AI projects. However, improving their health-related algorithms is a small step that could help to save at least some of the almost million people taking their lives every year.
“There’s a lot at stake if you don’t provide the same chances to everyone,” Scherr said. “Google is a global company, with smart people all over the world. They shouldn’t be forgetting about the rest of the world. They could fix this. They could do that today.”