Engagement Outweighs Exposure to Partisan and Unreliable News within Google Search
Popular online platforms such as Google Search have the capacity to expose billions of users to partisan and unreliable news. Yet, the content they show real users is understudied due to the technical challenges of independently obtaining such data, and the lack of data sharing agreements that include it. Here we advance on existing digital trace methods using a two-wave study in which we captured not only the URLs participants clicked on while browsing the web (engagement), but also the URLs they saw while using Google Search (exposure). Using surveys paired with engagement and exposure data collected around the 2018 and 2020 US elections, we found that strong Republicans engaged with more partisan and unreliable news than strong Democrats did, despite the two groups being exposed to similar amounts of partisan and unreliable news in their Google search results. Our results suggest the search engine is not pushing strong partisans into filter bubbles, but strong Republicans are asymmetrically selecting into echo chambers. These findings hold across both study waves, align with work on social media and web browsing, and provide a rare look at the relationship between exposure and engagement. Our research highlights the importance of users' choices, and our approach moves the field closer to the independent, longitudinal, and cross-platform studies it needs to evaluate the impact of online search and social media platforms.