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According to Google Images: Visual epistemologies of climate change and biodiversity loss

posted on 2022-08-01, 10:23 authored by Maud BorieMaud Borie, Laura Bruschi, Ariel Chen, Daniele Dell'Orto, Matthew HanchardMatthew Hanchard, Warren PearceWarren Pearce, Elena Pilipets, Alessandro Quets, Zijing Xu

The Google Images search engine is probably the most important online gatekeeper of visual culture worldwide, with over two billion searches conducted on the platform every day. Despite the platform’s importance, there is a scarcity of analyses on how Google determines the visibility of images within its search rankings. For example, is “authority” determined in a similar way to its textual web search results? Or do computer vision techniques offer new criteria for promoting images and the websites that host them?  

This research project focused on the visualisation of [climate change] and [biodiversity loss] by building a dataset of country-specific search rankings from Google Images. We scraped data from six different countries, selected for their political and geographic diversity in relation to the environment: Australia, Netherlands, Nigeria, China, Mexico and Brazil. We also built on findings from two previous DMI Summer School projects, Making Climate Visible (2017) and Climate Image Spaces (2019), that suggested that Google Images shows a dehumanised visuality of climate change dominated by landscapes, charts and the Earth. 

Google Images has a homogenising effect on the visual representation of both climate change and biodiversity loss. For climate change, generic representations of climate change dominate. In particular, a small number of stock images enjoy repeated high rankings across the different countries. Many of these images have a half and half “left/right” layout suggesting the current, often dystopian, situation on the left, with a more hopeful utopian future on the right (occasionally this implied temporality is reversed). Examples of these images include “hand in earth”, “landscape” and “tree”. Within the biodiversity loss images, there is also homogeneity, although with some greater country-specific diversity. Stock imagery is less dominant, but half and half images remain important. Although biodiversity loss covers many different aspects of environmental degradation, the imagery focuses almost exclusively on deforestation. 

Images appear to be ranked on whether they “accord” with Google’s envisioning of climate change and biodiversity loss as time-less, place-less, human-less and cause-less. Websites whose images do not accord with these visions are unlikely to be ranked highly by Google Images. 

Posters from a project conducted at the Digital Methods Initiative Summer School, July 4-8, 2022, University of Amsterdam. Link to full project report in references.


Strategic Research Support Fund, Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield



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