Did you know that pigs eat humans “far more often than people expect?” If not, surely you must have heard the important, breaking news that a priest “died” in 2016, went to Hell briefly and returned to inform the rest of us that demons like to play Rhianna’s Umbrella song over and over again. If you aren’t aware of these important news stories then maybe you haven’t been spending enough time using Windows’ search box and widgets section, which at least for me, are filled to the brim with tabloid trash headlines.
The stories come courtesy of Microsoft’s MSN content network, which syndicates content from hundreds of web publishers: some reputable, some less so. Full disclosure: Our parent company, Future Plc, has a syndication agreement with MSN and many of its sites, including Tom’s Hardware, occasionally have articles appear on the network. What’s problematic here, though, is not that MSN syndicates content but that it often pushes the equivalent of the Weekly World News table of contents right into the Windows operating system where it can be hard to avoid.
If you go to the search box in Windows 11 or 10 and click on it, likely with the intent of searching for an app or document on your local drive(s), you are presented with a slew of news headlines. Depending on who you are (and perhaps what you’ve clicked before), it can feel like you’re looking at the magazine rack in a supermarket checkout line.
You get even more headlines, with larger photos and more details, if you choose to click on (or possibly just hover over) the weather icon which lives on the left or right side of your taskbar. I just wanted the full forecast today when I clicked, but instead I was presented with this key headline: “Horror as Man Reveals Father-in-Law's Browser History at Family Gathering.”
Don’t get me wrong: I love reading about the 26 year old who spent $50K to look like an alien (in 2017, but covered as news last week) or the 9-foot “man-eating” alligator who came to someone’s door as much as the next person. But that kind of information shouldn’t be delivered as part of my operating system; I can get it on a website or on social media.
Windows is the most popular operating system in the world and people rely on it to get things done. Pumping embarrassing, low-quality news right into utilities like the search box is an unwelcome distraction, especially for someone who is easily distracted by it. You can turn off the search box’s “search highlights,” but they are enabled by default and you can’t remove all of the headlines from the weather widget. You can turn off the widget entirely, but then you won't get the temperature and precipitation right on your taskbar.
Can Be Misleading
A couple of weeks ago, I saw something in my Windows search box that was a lot worse than distracting: it was a series of dangerous conspiracy theories about former NIH Director Dr. Anthony Fauci. I’m not here to debate Dr. Fauci’s contributions and I don’t think Windows search box should be either.
On March 9th, a headline in the search box’s “trending news from the web” section had a picture of Fauci with the headline “Hid the COVID truth.” However, when I clicked through to the actual story, its own headline was much less accusatory and read “Fauci Says He's Always Been 'Honest' as COVID Origins Questions Raised.” So, while the headline itself lent the impression that Dr. Fauci was caught lying, the article it linked to merely pointed out that Fauci was subject to criticism from politicians who think that he’s not telling the truth. That’s a big difference.
I wrote in to a Microsoft PR about this to ask how it happened and, perhaps it was my complaint or perhaps it was dumb luck, but I haven’t seen any more COVID conspiracy theory articles in my feed since then. However, Windows is still bombarding me (and probably you too) with garbage content that would make a supermarket tabloid blush.
Your feed of content will vary based on what you’ve clicked on and what Microsoft knows about you and your preferences. For some folks I spoke with, the content is boring and unnecessary but not necessarily worthy of the National Enquirer. Others get their own set of trash. For example, Managing Editor Matt Safford got “I’m a doomsday prepper with an outhouse full of nuclear war supplies” as one of his recommended articles recently.
The article about Hell keeps popping in my feeds, more than a month after the first time I saw it. I think that’s because someone – likely the author – keeps changing the dateline to make it appear as if it’s brand new. It’s originally from Popular Mechanics, which I always thought was above this kind of thing, but is the laziest form of non-journalism I’ve seen in a while. Apparently someone put up a TikTok video claiming that they had been to Hell and the author at Popular Mechanics thought that writing about some random person posting an outrageous TikTok would be a good idea.
All of these low-quality articles also appear on MSN.com and, by default, on the new tab screen in Microsoft Edge. We expect to see garbage content or promotions for it on social media or on the web. But when it’s pumped right into the UI of your operating system, that’s a bridge too far.
Microsoft should either disable these distracting headlines by default or stop charging for its operating system and call it “free with ads.” After all, the company wants PC builders to pay a whopping $139 for a Windows 11 Home license, but then it tries to make money off of those same users by getting them to click on low-quality MSN content that makes money from advertising. Of course, you can also find ways right now to get Windows 11 for free or cheap.
Both Windows 10 and Windows 11 have a “Focus Assist” mode, but even with that on, the OS is trying to drive users down a rabbit hole of silliness. While writing this article, I was distracted several times, but the good news is that now I know “the scary truth about cutting mold off your bread.”
How to Stop Distracting Headlines in Windows
The good news is that you can, to an extent, turn off the news headlines in Windows. By “to an extent,” I mean that you can turn them off in the search box and the new tab page in Edge, but you can only block particular news sources in the widget board or you can get rid of the weather icon altogether. However, I like seeing the local temperature in my taskbar.
Disable Search Highlights (From Search Box)
The "Search Highlights" are the MSN promos you get when you first click on the search box and haven't even searched for anything. The headlines aren't always as distracting here as in the widgets. When I took the screenshot below, it was pushing Ireland tourism links.
In Windows 10, you can disable Search Highlights by right clicking on the search box and unchecking Search -> Show Search Highlights.
In WIndows 11, navigate to the Search permissions menu in Settings, which you can do by searching for it. Then toggle “Show search highlights” to off under “More settings.”
Limit Distractions in the Widgets Board
The widgets board is the set of headlines and other stuff you get when you click on or hover over the weather icon on your taskbar. In Windows 11, by default, just moving your pointer over the icon, you see the board and it takes up a lot of screen real estate.
You can disable the widget board entirely, but then you lose the weather icon, which also sometimes shows stock or traffic info in your taskbar.
You can disable the widgets by right clicking on the taskbar and selecting Taskbar settings. In Windows 10, you can set "show news and interests" to off. In Windows 11, you set "widgets" to off.
If you just want to limit the amount of trashy or misleading headlines on the widgets board, you can do that by clicking the "..." menu on a story block and selecting "Hide stories from ..." or "Fewer stories like this." If you hide stories from an annoying publication, you won't get headlines from that particular source again.
In an ideal world, though, Microsoft would allow you to disable all news headlines and just have the weather forecast.
Remove News from New Tabs in Edge
If you use Edge browser, you will notice that, by default, you get a slew of distracting headlines any time you open a blank new tab. However, it's easy to get rid of all of the headlines and have nothing more than nature scene wallpaper and a search box on blank tabs.
Just click the settings gear in the upper right corner and then select "Content Off" under the content menu.
Note: As with all of our op-eds, the opinions expressed here belong to the writer alone and not Tom's Hardware as a team.