Michael Golebiewski of Microsoft coined the term “data void” in May 2018 to describe search engine queries that turn up little to no results, especially when the query is rather obscure, or not searched often.
In Data Voids: Where Missing Data Can Easily Be Exploited, Golebiewski teams up with danah boyd (Microsoft Research; Data & Society) to demonstrate how data voids are exploited by manipulators eager to expose people to problematic content including falsehoods, misinformation, and disinformation.
Data voids are often difficult to detect. Most can be harmless until something happens that causes lots of people to search for the same term, such as a breaking news event, or a reporter using an unfamiliar phrase. In some cases, manipulators work quickly to produce conspiratorial content to fill a void, whereas other data voids, such as those from outdated terms, are filled slowly over time. Data voids are compounded by the fraught pathways of search-adjacent recommendation systems such as auto-play, auto-fill, and trending topics; each of which are vulnerable to manipulation.
The report identifies five types of data voids in play:
“Data voids are a security vulnerability that must be systematically, intentionally, and thoughtfully managed.”
Data voids are not unique to search engines; they occur on social media platforms, too, where search is typically limited to information hosted on that particular platform.
Golebiewski and boyd emphasize that there is no “quick fix” for data voids. Instead, they urge search engines and content creators to work together to anticipate and identify risky data voids, and to fill them with quality content. “Data voids are a security vulnerability that must be systematically, intentionally, and thoughtfully managed.”
Golebiewski and boyd first introduced data voids in the May 2018 version of this report. Read it here.