Google’s Social Responsibility

In my last post I discussed a partnership between Google and The Samaritans which aims to provide clear signposts to the Samaritans’ helpline and website at the top of suicide-related Google Search results. This partnership shows Google taking social responsibility for the power they have in the search engine market. Following on from this, I have been exploring Google’s social and corporate responsibilities in relation to mental health and technology.

Google was in the news earlier this year after an investigation by The Times found that brands were unwittingly advertising on sites by Islamic extremists, pornographers and white supremacists through Google’s programmatic advertising (Mostrous, 2017). This raised the issue of Google’s Corporate Social Responsibility in relation to advertising within the media.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) arises from two distinct assumptions about how the common good can be achieved within a capitalist society. One model of CSR is based on the principal of a self-regulating market, whilst the other stresses the need for government regulation. Notably, Google does not – like the majority of companies – publish a comprehensive annual CSR report (Sandoval, 2014). This makes it difficult to analyse the company’s attitude to its social responsibility.

That said, Google does provide information about its social initiatives via Google.org and environmental initiatives via Google Green. In addition, Google’s Code of Conduct is a policy that dictates how the corporation and its employees behave towards customers, other employees, and how to behave responsibly in general.

But what about specifically in the mental health sector?

In 2015, Joshua Gordon left his post as the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health to join Google Life Sciences in order to investigate how technology can help diagnose and treat mental health conditions. This is another example of Google self-regulating its responsibility to the mental health sector, much like the partnership with and free advertising for The Samaritans.

Whilst Google’s responsibility in the field of mental health technology is self-regulating, Arndt & Scherr (2016) criticise the algorithm Google have created for their agreement with the Samaritans for being limited to a certain number of visitors. They present a new algorithm to increase the frequency of suicide-prevention results being presented, optimised to reach vulnerable individuals.

Given the market dominance Google have and their subsequent control over information seeking and information retrieval, they have become powerful gatekeepers (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). As such we might argue that they have a responsibility to do more. Whilst their algorithm and partnership with the Samaritans is admirable, there is much room for improvement by providing support for other mental health disorders, to be discussed in my next post.

References

Arendt, F. & Scherr, S. (2016) Optimizing Online Suicide Prevention: A Search Engine-Based Tailored Approach, Health Communication, 1532-7027, DOI: 10.1080/10410236.2016.1224451

Mostrous, A. (2017). Big brands fund terror through online adverts. The Times. [online] Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/big-brands-fund-terror-knnxfgb98 [Accessed 23 Apr. 2017].

Sandoval, M. (2014) From Corporate to Social Media: Critical Perspectives on Corporate Social Responsibility in Media and Communication Industries, Oxon: Routledge.

Shoemaker, P., & Vos, T. (2009). Gatekeeping theory. New York, NY:
Routledge.

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Google Search & The Samaritans

There is a huge amount of research in existence comparing suicide-related search terms on Google and national statistics for death by suicide. As my reading has extended I have realised that this topic will involve writing about mental health professionals, the legal system and the media, in addition to the design and development of search engine algorithms. The arguments regarding the ethical responsibility of the search engine providers are further reaching than one might imagine.

In 2010, Google and The Samaritans announced that the charity’s telephone number and a highly visible icon would be triggered when people in the UK search for information related to suicide. This was trialled in the US initially, and extended to Ireland in 2011.

Upon release it was reported that the service was ‘designed to be more prominent than advertisements’ (BBC, 2010), appearing at the top of the page with the red telephone icon. However, as you can see below, on a standard search this now falls below the fold and does not contain any eye-catching colours.

suicide search top
The first four results that appear after a basic search for ‘suicide’ are paid advertisements
suicide search 2
The Samaritan box falls below these advertisements, but before the un-sponsored search results

It seems as though Google have forgotten the seven year-old deal with the Samaritans in favour of advertisements. However, as the Samaritan’s annual accounts refer to over £400,000 worth of donated advertising space, and do not refer to advertising within their expenditures, it seems fair to conclude that Google are not charging the Samaritan’s for their advertisements.

The service was also criticised initially for only working with search terms including the word suicide, but Google promised to develop the service gradually over time. Whilst some other search terms are now included – such as ‘kill self’ (screen shot below), many search terms that may be used by those with suicidal ideation are not linked to any self help sites or information – for example ‘shoot self in head’ and ‘overdose’ are not linked  to this service.

kill self search
Some search terms without the word ‘suicide’ are now triggers for the Samaritan’s contact number

Arendt & Scherr have more recently suggested that, whilst Google’s efforts to assist in suicide prevention are ‘laudable’, more can be done (Arendt & Scherr, 2016). These researchers suggest that the algorithm should adjust according to peaks in suicidal behaviour on specific days. According to the results of Ardent & Scherr’s research, Sundays, Mondays, New Year’s Day and the Saturday’s following Thanksgiving are high-risk for suicidal behaviour. However, the researchers also recommended a general increase in frequency of the suicide prevention result.

A question to be answered in my next blog post will be how Google’s involvement in e-mental health services is restricted as a result of being a market-driven company with stakeholders to think of.

References

Arendt, F. & Scherr, S. (2016) Optimizing Online Suicide Prevention: A Search Engine-Based Tailored Approach, Health Communication, 1532-7027, DOI: 10.1080/10410236.2016.1224451

BBC News. (2017). Google offers Samaritans link-up – BBC News. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11734269 [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].

The Samaritans (2010) Google And Samaritans: New Search Feature To Help People Looking Online For Information About Suicide. [online] Available at: http://www.samaritans.org/news/press-release-google-and-samaritans-new-search-feature-help-people-looking-online-information [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017].

The Samaritans (2011) New Google feature signposts people searching for suicide to Samaritans. [online] Available at: http://www.samaritans.org/news/press-release-new-google-feature-signposts-people-searching-suicide-samaritans [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017]

The Samaritans (2015) Samaritans Annual Report And Accounts 2014/15. [online] Available at: http://www.samaritans.org/sites/default/files/kcfinder/files/Sam_annual_report_201415%281%29.pdf [Accessed 16 Apr. 2017]

Independent Study Topic

When given the opportunity to take an independent study module, I was immediately drawn to the idea of researching mental health within the context of library and information science.

Mental health is a topic I find extremely interesting and have used as a theme throughout all of my research; whether within the discipline of English Literature or Social History, it is a research area which fascinates me. During my undergrad dissertation, I explored eighteenth century female madness through a comparison of published doctors’ case notes and figures of female madness in the sentimental novel. I continued this theme in my MA dissertation, exploring the evidence that female madness in women’s writing was heavily influenced by the philosophical debates surrounding the French Revolution, concluding that the eighteenth century madwoman was a powerful symbol of female oppression.

I would now like to continue this theme within the context of library and information science. I will be exploring the opportunities and dangers of mental health treatments offered by digital technologies in our information age.

Since the introduction of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, and developments in technology making the web ever more accessible through personal computers and smart phones throughout the 2000s, the availability of mental health information and treatment online has become ever more frequent.

Sheri Bauman and Ian Rivers’ monograph Mental Health in the Digital Age (2015) offers a fairly comprehensive overview of the topic in an attempt to answer the question of whether the mental health sector is enhanced or diminished by the digitisation of our world. Reading this text encouraged me to focus upon the ethical implications for practitioners offering online counselling.

Zack (2008) provides a basic review of legal issues relating to providing mental health services via the internet. This raises interesting ethical and legal difficulties, including cross-state or country differences in law, and difficulties relating to the duty to warn in the case of clients likely to cause harm to themselves or others.

After reflecting on these implications for practitioners providing online counselling, I read a news article from 2012 in which Matthew Limb suggests that developers of technologies have a “vested interest” in marketing products that work for mental health professionals.

He said that the way a Google search for “suicide” in the United Kingdom prompted an immediate link and telephone number for the Samaritans above other search results was an an example of “support services finding users where they are, rather than needing to be sought out to provide support.”

– Limb (2012)

This seems, in the context of library and information science, a more suitable topic for study to some degree. I intend now to focus on ways in which search engines approach mental health searches, and the possible implications this may have on those suffering from mental health disorders.

Searches relating to mental health completed on Google and other search engines will have an impact upon mental health professionals – often these searches will take place before contact with a practitioner or GP. In fact, Gosen (2013) reports that 89% of participants in a study had looked up mental health information online. This included information on medications, diagnoses, treatment options, access to health care, and avenues for support. In light of this, the internet search engine seems to have major implications for the mental health field.

Going forward with my research, I will attempt to answer the following questions:

  • How can algorithms such as Google PageRank ensure the accuracy and authority of results for mental health searches?
  • Do companies such as Google and Bing have an ethical obligation to ensure their search algorithms provide the most accurate information available?
  • Do search engine providers consult with mental health professionals?
  • Should there be a closer dialogue between mental health practitioners and companies such as Google?

References

Bauman, S. & Rivers, I. (2015) Mental Health in the Digital Age. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gosen, L. K. (2013) Online mental health information seeking in young adults with mental health challenges. Journal of Technology and Human Services, 31, p. 97-111.

Limb, M. (2012) Digital technologies offer new ways to tackle mental health problems.

Zack, J. S. (2008) How Sturdy is that Digital Couch? Legal Considerations for Mental Health Professionals Who Deliver Clincial Services via the Internet. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 26(2/4), p. 333-359.