Since the election, Facebook and Google have been rocked by criticism that they are promoting “fake news” on their platforms.
Both have pledged to try and stop this type of content from spreading, but it remains a consistent issue. On Sunday, The Guardian pointed out that the top Google search result for “Did the Holocaust happen?” returned a list of reasons why it “didn’t happen,” published on white nationalist site Stormfront.
But it turns out that Google’s fake news problem is a lot bigger than just Stormfront.
For many conspiracy theories, the first search result is a website that purports to confirm the conspiracy is true: from 9/11 being a hoax to chemtrails.
It’s easy to see how this could be a problem. Let’s take chemtrails as an example. If I were unsure about the theory and asked Google, “can chemtrails control your mind?” it would return me a definite “yes” as the first result.
Here’s the headline for that first hit: “This Is Huge! Gov Bill Proves Chemtrail and Mind Control Cover-Up Is Real! UN Leaker Makes a Stunning Statement! (Bone-Chilling Video).” That is emphatic.
You have to scroll down to the seventh search result to find a more reasoned perspective on chemtrails: the Wikipedia article.
So what is Google’s take on this?
In response to a question about the Stormfront/Holocaust result, Google provided the following statement to Business Insider:
“We are saddened to see that hate organizations still exist. The fact that hate sites appear in Search results does not mean that Google endorses these views. Search is a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet. A site’s ranking in search results is determined by computer algorithms using hundreds of factors to calculate a page’s relevance to a given query. We do not remove content from our search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content, malware and violations of our webmaster guidelines.”
Google doesn’t want to censor, which is an understandable position. But the fact that someone might come to Google searching for information on a theory they heard, and be confronted with bogus facts backing it up as the first result, is troubling.
What’s worse is that part of the first search result is sometimes pulled as a snippet by Google, which seems to imply that Google is providing you the answer to the question you just asked.
Here’s an example:
You’d be forgiven for thinking Google was telling you that, “there’s a fair amount of proof that this New World Order (or at least something like it) really does exist.”
Here are seven examples we found where the top result for a conspiracy theory was a confirmation:
Question: Did the Holocaust happen?
First result: “Top 10 reasons why the holocaust didn’t happen.”
Question: Was 9/11 a hoax?
First result: “9/11 was a hoax. The American government killed its own people.”
Question: Are the Illuminati real?
First result: “10 Compelling Pieces Of Evidence That Prove The Illuminati Are Real.”
Question: Are chemtrails real?
First result: “The United Nations Admits Chemtrails Are Real.”
Question: Is global warming fake?
First result: “Proof that the man-made global warming theory is false.”
Question: Are dinosaur bones a hoax?
First result: “Dinosaurs Never Existed!”
Question: Is Obama Muslim?
First result: “‘Yes, Obama’s Really a Muslim'”
Note: The article’s full headline, “‘Yes, Obama’s Really a Muslim,’ Claim Muslims … ?” only appears after clicking on the link.