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Can Correct the Internet Boot Out Bias Against Sportswomen?


Search engines are suppressing sportswomen’s achievements - and as the FIFA Women’s World Cup looms, DDB Aotearoa NZ, Team Heroine and more are setting out to Correct the Internet, as Gary Steele and Lex Hodge explains to Laura Swinton

Can Correct the Internet Boot Out Bias Against Sportswomen?

Unconscious bias is insidious, and when it comes to the technology we depend upon to navigate and learn about the world it’s downright poisonous. Thanks to a phenomenon succinctly described by writer Caroline Criado Perez as ‘the default male’, we have a tendency to automatically assume that the average human being is male, and when asked to imagine professionals like scientists, doctors or footballers, we tend to picture a bloke.

Humanity has built that into the internet, and it’s had an egregious impact on women’s sports. When asked about human sporting records and achievements, search engines overwhelmingly overlook female successes in favour of sportsmen who have come later or not quite matched their female predecessors. It’s almost like these sportswomen have never existed.

That has a real world impact. Teenage girls are far more likely to drop out of sport than teenage boys, and that has a lifelong effect on their health and wellbeing. With potential female role models edged out, we’re losing the heroines who could inspire greater participation.

DDB Aotearoa has kicked off a new campaign to draw attention to this disparity. A powerful film sees a small girl converse with a stadium-full of smart speakers. She asks who has scored the most goals in international football. The droning reply is that it’s Cristiano Ronaldo, when it’s actually women’s footballer, Christine Sinclair. People are also invited to head to the correcttheinternet website to help tackle this bias.

It’s a timely campaign as later this year New Zealand is due to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup alongside Australia. To find out more about it, LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Gary Steele, CCO DDB Aotearoa and Lex Hodge, Executive Producer of FINCH.

​​LBB> How did the relationship between Correct the Internet and DDB Aotearoa come about?

Gary> The problem was first discovered when DDB Aotearoa NZ was pitching for a piece of business related to the FIFA Women’s World Cup. When researching facts about the world’s top footballers, the team discovered that women held many of football’s records. However, when asking simple, ungendered questions to find these facts, the internet was incorrectly putting men ahead of the statistically superior women in its search results. Coincidently, the young niece of one of the team was also researching footballers for her own school project and was confronted with the same problem. This really reinforced the gravity of the situation. 

This was all happening at a time in New Zealand when women’s sport had a higher profile than ever before. It just seemed wrong that people, including our young daughters and nieces, were getting fed incorrect facts when the social climate was pushing to champion sportswomen more than ever. So, we started to dig deeper beyond football, and uncovered more and more incorrect search results across many sports. We knew this wasn’t right, and the idea of correcting the internet was germinated.

It very quickly blossomed into a highly collaborative, inquisitive process, and all who are involved have contributed their individual skill sets, working collectively towards a single goal. We reached out to FINCH and quickly discovered that we all wanted to make a powerful film to kick off the campaign.

‘Correct The Internet’ is led by Rebecca Sowden owner of Team Heroine and supported by the United Nations’ ‘Football for the Goals’ as this aligns to the Sustainable Development that garnered support from organisations such as Women in Sport Aotearoa (WISPA), Women Sport Australia, New Zealand Football, and many well-known athletes including English rugby’s Red Roses’ player, Shaunagh Brown, and NZ Football Fern Meikayla Moore, all working towards the collective goal of correcting the incorrect search engine results. 

LBB> What was it that Correct the Internet really wanted to achieve and can you explain what you discovered about the extent of the problem?

Gary> It was working with Team Heroine and helping them find a way for female athletes to receive the recognition they deserve which was the starting point for something that snowballed into something much bigger. That is when Correct the Internet was born. It was a realisation that the bias was a lot deeper than we ever imagined.

Search engine algorithms are trained on human behaviour and designed to give us, the users, what we want in terms of content. This campaign acknowledges that we, the people, have populated the internet with details that reflect society’s historic and inherent bias. 

There is no easy way to correct the inconsistencies in search results. However, if people report these issues using each search engine’s inbuilt feedback function, they can be logged and fixed. The problem is, most people aren’t familiar with the feedback function, and recent design changes on some of the larger search engines make it harder to find.

The team behind Correct The Internet created a tool that makes sending feedback easy for anyone to execute with just a couple of clicks – making reporting the necessary feedback on the scale required to drive change possible.  

The tool is hosted on and the public can visit the site to send a feedback message to search engines notifying them of their incorrect search results and provide the correct information. Over time, the aim is to find and correct as many incorrect search results as possible using this tool and the collective power of the people. Success will see a correction of these search results over time, through the support from a global community of people willing to speak up and take tangible action to reverse some of the gender biases that have been ruling our search engines.

LBB> In terms of the film element of the campaign, that image of the rows of Alexas filling up a stadium is so powerful - how did you alight on that?

Lex> Firstly, let’s avoid calling them Alexas. The problem is bigger than just one search engine, it is the entire internet and that is why we chose to use generic smart home speakers. Giving the internet a voice via the smart home speakers was not only a storytelling and practical solution, ensuring that the film could be a conversation, but also putting thousands of them in a stadium felt like a strong way to show the audience that they themselves are accountable for this bias. The internet is reflective of us, the algorithms are attuned to our behaviours – and this was a way to illustrate that in a sporting context. 

LBB> I guess the obvious way to go with any idea or topic that focuses on the Internet is to use the imagery of the screen - why did you decide to go a different way?

Lex> Yes, that would be the obvious way to go. The screen/words being written in black and white do speak to the idea that the information we are receiving is fact. However, making this interaction between a child and the internet a conversation was key to illustrating the basis of these ‘facts’ – societal bias and human error – just like in a normal conversation. Having the ability to challenge the information is really the takeaway here, so we show that we have the power to solve it. 

LBB> The story of Christine Sinclair is really interesting when you dig into it - of course there are so many examples of women's achievements being overlooked in sports alone - so why was Christine Sinclair the most powerful example to go with?

Gary> We wanted to start with women’s football in particular as it is so overlooked globally, and this is the year of the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup which is also hosted here in New Zealand & Australia so it was a good start to ignite the conversation. Cristiano Ronaldo is also one of the most famous sports people on the planet – and Christine Sinclair just doesn’t have the same world-wide recognition, even though she should! And I suppose that's why this juxtaposition was so powerful. She deserves the credit and the fame, but our collective societal bias has stood in the way of that. She is just one of many sportswomen that we are trying to make more visible on the internet.

LBB> Why was Lex Hodge the ideal director for the project?

Gary> Lex speaks truth to power, and the opportunity to stand with a young girl in a place of questioning the way things are was irresistible. Lex combines a crisp aesthetic sense from a design background, and with her work as an actor, brings an intense commitment to performance within a powerfully visual environment. FINCH were the ideal partners – the creative storytelling and problem solving made for the best of collaborations. 

LBB> The performance from the little girl really is key - she's so engaging and emotive. Casting and working with kids can be a challenge and this spot really hinges on that central performance - who is she, how did you find her and how did you help her bring out that great performance?

Lex> Her name is Serenity Andrews, she is an incredible young performer from Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland). Our friends at Catch Casting shoulder-tapped key actors and then Lex went through a casting process, spending time with the young performers and getting to know them. Serenity immediately stood out, and her and Lex connected at a deep level, doing thorough rehearsals to prepare Serenity for a very tight shoot period. 

Serenity is an incredibly adaptive and intuitive performer and Lex worked with her to imagine the vast landscape of smart home speakers, and the intimidating presence they would eventually have. They worked together to create the right tone for the piece – Serenity being slightly intimidated by the magnitude of this space, but also having the childlike quest for justice that allows her to question something much bigger than her, when she knows the truth…a balancing act!

LBB> What was the most interesting creative challenge you faced with this project and how did you tackle it?

Lex> To create an impactful film as the launch of our campaign had many creative and production challenges. To make impactful work on a low budget, with a short time frame, and ensure it speaks to the vastness of the problem, was something we had to pull together on all sides, from everyone involved. 

We had to ensure the smart home speakers were generic so that they spoke across all platforms and to the whole of society itself, but we also needed them to be brighter than normal, so the visual effect would be much more striking from a distance. We therefore had to design and 3D print 60 of them in under a week, which we then multiplied in post. 

We also needed to shoot this at our national stadium, Eden Park, so that it resonated at the deepest level. We had to work with tight conditions and a short shoot window, so our incredible DP Gin Loane had to plan to execute the shoot quickly with two units, so that we could concentrate first and foremost on performance. 

The film had to be powerful and get people talking. But we also had to ask ourselves how might we effect change? What could we do to help enable success? We worked backwards from how the search engines allow users to add bugs to be fixed and through their inbuilt feedback functions, we were able to automate this process and make it super easy for the user to be able to give this feedback, importantly from their own IP addresses. But then of course as things do, a new UI update was rolled out on the largest search engine which meant that giving feedback was even harder and we’re able to force open the feedback section of the site. This was tackled in the tool with extensive UX testing to get to the tool we have today.

LBB> This campaign has already garnered support outside of New Zealand, in Australia and England - what are your ambitions in terms of helping this movement go global?

Gary> This campaign is already global and hence why we have so many global partners on board supporting us like the United States Women’s National Team Players Association (USWNT). Everyone recognises this as a big issue for us all and the more we can get people to talk, share and help correct the internet for the future generations that will be searching for factual information.

We want a correct internet that delivers factually correct answers, consistently.

Our dream is that when an eight-year-old is researching sports for a school assignment, they type in a simple search question such as ‘Who has scored the most goals in international football?’ they get the factually correct answer.

That is the ultimate goal – but for now, we want people to have conversations all around the world and we want people – the general internet using public – to be, not just part of the conversation but also part of the solution by helping us correct the internet. 


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DDB New Zealand, Wed, 01 Feb 2023 06:36:21 GMT