As the debate surrounding the prevalence, scope and impact of fake news continues to rage on unabated, the latest tech company being accused of passively enabling misinformation to spread far and wide is Google.
In a fascinating post over at The Outline, Adrianne Jeffries explains how the answer boxes provided by Google Search (also known as Featured Snippets) are often dead wrong. Compounding matters is that Google’s answer boxes enjoy premium placement above actual search results, thereby affording them more credibility in the process.
For anyone unfamiliar, Google’s answer boxes typically appear when one asks questions that can be answered quickly and definitively. As an example, if you Google “How tall is Tom Brady?”, Google will provide you with a quick and dirty answer, thereby saving you the time of having to sort through search results that may or may not lead you on a wild goose chase.
The problem, though, is that these answer boxes will deliver false answers for questions that shouldn’t even return an instant answer.
Peter Shulman, an associate history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, was lecturing on the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s when a student asked an odd question: Was President Warren Harding a member of the KKK?
Shulman was taken aback. He confessed that he was not aware of that allegation, but that Harding had been in favor of anti-lynching legislation, so it seemed unlikely. But then a second student pulled out his phone and announced that yes, Harding had been a Klan member, and so had four other presidents. It was right there on Google, clearly emphasized inside a box at the top of the page.
Hot on the heels of Jeffries’ report came another interesting tidbit of information, this time involving Google Home. When BBC correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones asked his Google Home if Obama is planning a coup, the response was jarring to say the least.
According to details exposed in Western Centre for Journalism’s exclusive video, not only could Obama be in bed with the communist Chinese, but Obama may in fact be planning a communist coup d’état at the end of his term in 2016!
The web is of course filled with misinformation and crazed conspiracy theories, but it’s worrying to see this type of information paraded in front of users as if it were completely credible.
Audio of the Google Home in action can be heard via the video below.
And here's what happens if you ask Google Home "is Obama planning a coup?" pic.twitter.com/MzmZqGOOal
— Rory Cellan-Jones (@ruskin147) March 5, 2017
Addressing the matter, Google provided the following explanation to Recode late yesterday:
Featured Snippets in Search provide an automatic and algorithmic match to a given search query, and the content comes from third-party sites. Unfortunately, there are instances when we feature a site with inappropriate or misleading content. When we are alerted to a Featured Snippet that violates our policies, we work quickly to remove them, which we have done in this instance. We apologize for any offense this may have caused.
Still, at the time of this writing, a Google query for “Presidents in the Klan” still yields erroneous results.