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Obama’s planned coup and Google’s part in the spreading of fake news
You’ve probably heard a thing or two about fake news by now. And no, I don’t mean the CNN; I mean baseless headlines floating around the web whose primary purpose is political manipulation. While companies like Facebook have been at the center of heavy criticism after the surprising election result here in the US – and the social network has since implemented ways to combat fake news on its site – Google somehow managed to remain immune to the public outcry, for the most part. Well, not so fast, you colorful little search engine. As it turns out, Google did and still does play a huge role in promulgating fake news, and the company must take action to address what could ultimately be detrimental to the American democracy.
How many times have you seen headlines such as “Pope Francis officially endorses Donald Trump” or “Hillary Clinton involved in child sex-trafficking” or really, anything absurd along those lines? If you’re on Facebook, probably at least once. These are what we call fake news, or stories that simply are false. And they can distort people’s perception of public figures and events and consequently have an irreversible impact on politics. Indeed, it’s a curious problem of the 21st century where information has become so accessible yet the validation of its sources isn’t necessarily there.
Indeed, it’s a curious problem of the 21st century where information has become so accessible yet the validation of its sources isn’t necessarily there.
Now, Facebook has acknowledged this widespread issue and is working to reduce fake news on its site, but what about companies like Google? Why haven’t Google and its parent company Alphabet been under scrutiny? Is it because they’re not affected by fake news? Well, apparently that’s not the case. First of all, as you may already know, many “conspiracy theory” videos circulate via YouTube, an Alphabet-owned website. Absurd allegations like Pizzagate have been promoted and shared on Alphabet’s platform.
If you’re wondering if Obama is planning a coup, Google’s “one true answer” is yes. FFS. pic.twitter.com/pFr7omJttU— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) March 5, 2017
Second, even Google’s search engine itself has some serious issues. As shown by Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand above, when asked questions like “Is Obama planning a coup?” or “Is Obama planning martial law?” Google cites extreme right websites as if those are factually correct (and no, they are not; as you may have noticed, no coup has happened). Of course, since Google Home devices use the same network as Google Search, its answer is just as ridiculous:
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
As Eric Johnson of Recode points out, when asked the same question, Amazon’s Alexa simply says she cannot find the answer. So while Google may be better at giving an answer, that answer may not necessarily be fact-checked. When he reached out to Google, he received the following response:
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.
While it’s reassuring that Google did indeed take action to remove that answer, it’s still troubling that the biggest search engine in the world isn’t proactively combatting an issue that could limit our access to information and ultimately hurt democracy as an institution. While its promise to reduce financial incentives for these websites is a good start, the effort cannot end there as shown here.
Have you noticed any fake news or fake information on Google lately? Do you report them to Google? Let us know by leaving a comment below!