UPDATE: Nov. 6, 2017, 4:54 p.m. EST This piece has been updated with a response from #Google about its autofill feature.
Google: Do better.
That was among the big takeaways on Sunday afternoon as people scrambled to learn more about the shooter who killed 26 people that day at a church in Texas. Instead of being given legitimate insight and hard news, Google served people a litany of false information and #propaganda—the kind meant to inflame people’s emotions, and drive them apart. Call it whatever you want, so long as you don’t call it news.
And that is, let’s be real, what Google gave to everyone. Front and center.
The results featured a now-typical lineup of chum for the far right: Islam, Antifa, Hillary Clinton, et al.
Justin Hendrix at NYC Media Lab highlighted the problem:
To be clear, this is Google—one of the most powerful, profitable, and technically advanced companies in the world—spreading laughably false information. And they’re spreading it through a search engine everyone you know uses. Google is the dominant search engine. So dominant, in fact, that they generated $27.8 billion in revenue…in the past three months.
And the really wild part is that, well, the fixes are relatively easy.
FIX NO. 1: GOOGLE NEEDS TO STOP INCLUDES TWEETS IN SEARCH RESULTS. They started doing this in 2015, so it’s not exactly a core part of the Google user’s experience. Twitter, as we’ve all come to realize, isn’t just people passing around memes for the lulz, but also, plenty of Russian troll accounts looking to stoke political tension. Twitter, as many people have known for years, is good in breaking news situations, but it’s also rife with misinformation that can trick even veteran journalists. Why force that information on people when even trained practitioners have trouble sorting through it?
FIX NO. 2: IF THEY WON’T STOP WITH THE TWITTER RESULTS, GOOGLE COULD JUST, UH, START LIMITING THE ACCOUNTS IT PULLS FROM. It makes no sense to try to crawl all of Twitter for tweets about major topics without any sense of their quality. Walk up to the first person you see on the street, and ask them to explain something to you. That’s a bad idea. Now imagine doing that in a high school cafeteria, or an insane asylum, except you’re not finding the first person, but the loudest. That’s Twitter, or at least, how Google’s going about crawling it, and giving you results from those crawls. And while Google’s search engine relies on “more than 200 unique signals or ‘clues'” for its results, it doesn’t seem to have a problem grabbing tweets from random Twitter accounts. If tweets really need to be in Google’s search, it would (at the very least) make sense to use the same approach as Google News, which pulls coverage from a variety of known, trustworthy media outlets.
Google, however, doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with what they’re doing. In a statement, they dodged this criticism with a variety of excuses:
The search [results] appearing from Twitter, which surface based on our ranking algorithms, are changing second by second and represent a dynamic conversation that is going on in near real-time. For the queries in question, they are not the first results we show on the page. Instead, they appear after news sources, including our Top Stories carousel which we have been constantly updating. We’ll look at ways to improve how we rank tweets that appear in search.
In other words, this is all working fine, according to Google.
What’s particularly worrying here isn’t that Google’s surfacing misinformation—it’s that Google’s clearly being gamed by people spreading propaganda meant to push specific narratives related to divisive political topics. In other words, people (like, say, Russian trolls) are using the biggest search engine in the world to divide Americans, and they’re winning.
The problem, however, persists—and not just in Google’s search. Google’s also goo an issue in YouTube being used to spread false information—which then influences Google’s search ranking.
So misinformation isn’t only being spread during breaking news events—there’s also knock-on effect of these results. A search for the shooter’s name returns “Antifa” as an early result. Where did the shooter’s association with Antifa first start? Twitter and YouTube, of course!
Google responded to an inquiry about this autofill result with a comment: “Autocomplete predictions are algorithmically generated based on users’ search activity and interests. Because of this, terms that appear in Autocomplete may be unexpected or unpleasant. In this case, there is great interest in the topic which is being reflected in the tool. We try to be careful with autocompletions on names, and in this case, our system did not work as intended. We’re currently working on our system for name detection to improve this process moving forward.”
And this is how, in less than 24 hours, a national tragedy becomes fodder for the ongoing information wars.
Again: Google, probably the single most dominant information distributor the world has even seen, is being gamed by some hack propagandists with Twitter accounts—and that appears to be just fine by Google.
As the Congressional hearings where Google, Facebook, and Twitter hinted at last week, the “it’s not us, just our algorithms, man” defense that tech companies have stood by for years may finally spark a regulatory backlash—and that’s the very last thing these companies want. If anything can get Google, Facebook, and Twitter to act, it’s the prospect that the government is going to make it harder for them to make money.
But Google isn’t acting just yet, as Sunday’s events show. Without action, Google will remain a tool for propagandists to take advantage of national tragedies to deepen political divisions and obscure reality. And that’s dangerous, unacceptable, and easy to change. So why won’t they do it?
Read more: http://mashable.com/