Google is facing accusations of spreading fake news, after being repeatedly discovered sharing falsehoods and conspiracy theories through its “featured snippets in search” functionality.
The feature automatically pulls in short answers to common queries from popular websites. It can show them in the search results directly, and is also the basis for the quick answers provided through Google’s smart speaker device, the Google Home.
When it works, it leads to the search engine helpfully answering questions like “who is the richest man in the world” without requiring the user to click a further link – in this case, pulling eight names from a listicle on the Indian Express.
But when it doesn’t, it pulls from sites sharing fake news, propaganda and simple lies. Worse, it can result in the Google Home reading the same statements as fact, without even the presence of the other search results to provide much needed contextual clues that the answers might be misleading. The device does, however, read out the name of the site which provides the original information.
Over the weekend, asking Google, or the Google Home, “is Obama planning a coup” would pull in a quick answer from a site called Secrets of the Fed which stated: “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!
Following the initial news reports, the search snippet was removed. But The Outline’s Adrianne Jeffries documented a huge number of other problematic results: search snippets claiming that monosodium glutamate causes brain damage, Barack Obama is the King of the US, and US president Warren Harding was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, in addition to less serious, but equally embarrassing, errors such as an answer about the smell of Iodine linking to a guide to cooking Meth, and one about why fire engines are red citing a Monty Python joke.
The focus on search snippets comes at an awkward time for Google. The search engine has largely managed to avoid the media firestorm around “fake news”, which has instead landed at the feet of Facebook, due to the latter’s love of its algorithmic newsfeed.
But the snippets can be seen as Google lending its own institutional authority to statements which, in fact, have no authority at all; that could greatly increase the potential damage caused by the spread of such falsehoods online.
After a request for comment, a Google spokesperson said: “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 apologise for any offense this may have caused.”