Google must urgently review its search ranking system because of “compelling” evidence that it is being “manipulated and controlled” by rightwing propagandists, leading academics have said, after the Observer reported that hate sites are now dominating searches on Muslims, Jews, Hitler and women.
Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist and the author of Weapons on Math Destruction, said that unless Google acknowledged responsibility for the problem, it would be a “co-conspirator” with the propagandists. “This is the end for Google pretending to be a neutral platform,” she said. “It clearly has a terrible problem here and it has to own and acknowledge that.
“It simply can’t go on pretending that it has no editorial responsibilities when it is delivering these kinds of results. It is simply not defensible for it go on claiming ‘plausible deniability’. It has clearly become a conduit for rightwing hate sites and it must urgently take action.”
The Observer found that searches for “are jews” were offering the suggestion “are jews evil”, and nine out of the 10 top results gave links to rightwing antisemitic hate sites. Google refused to comment on the individual search results, but on Sunday, it moved to change some but not all of the autocomplete suggestions that the report highlighted.
Frank Pasquale, professor of law at Maryland University, said he found this “a very troubling and disturbing development”. “They’ve gone on in the fly and plugged the plug on certain search terms in response to your article, but this raises bigger and more difficult questions. Who did that? And how did they decide? Who’s in charge of these decisions? And what will they do in the future? This is clearly just being done in response to a story in the media, but it’s not accountable, and it’s not sustainable. I find it really troubling that they’ve taken this very quick and hasty response without any explanation of how and why they’ve done it.”
Google had removed the lines suggesting that Jews and black people are evil and that blacks “commit more crimes”, but it is still suggesting Muslims were “bad” and that Islam “should be destroyed”. While Facebook has faced criticism in the wake of revelations about how the site had become a conduit for fake news, the problem facing Google is potentially even more intractable.
O’Neil said that she believed Google would ultimately have to hire human editors. She said: “There’s a a growing list of social media empires that have been attempting with all their power and might to claim that they don’t have editorial responsibility, but they have been proven wrong.
“They have been proven wrong by this troll army, and quite clearly when it comes to the questions that require a subtle understanding of the truth versus lies, they are going to have to use human judgment.
“It is clearly very frightening what is going on here. Google has done a huge amount of work to avoid exactly this scenario. And yet the troll army has still managed to break through all its resources and defences. It is very troubling and they are clearly very, very good at this, but it’s why Google has to own this problem. It is doing a terrible job here.
“Twenty years ago, these sites with these views … they would have been completely shut out by the mainstream press, but we have replaced our guardians of information with algorithms that are dumb and that can be toyed with and manipulated.”
Jonathan Albright, assistant professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, said that rightwing websites had launched a new “information war”, and that that they were winning. His research has shown that fake news and extremist sites have created a vast network of links to each other and mainstream sites that has enabled them to game Google’s algorithm. The top eight out of 10 results for the Google search “was Hitler bad?”, for example, are links to Holocaust denial sites including the neo-Nazi site, StormFront.org.
Albright’s research has shown that fake news and information is a far bigger structural problem than had been previously realised. He has mapped a “vast satellite system that is encroaching on the mainstream news system”. Websites propagating extreme rightwing propaganda have thrown out thousands of hyperlinks that connect to each other and to mainstream news sources, such as YouTube and Facebook, and he says they “are growing in strength and influence every day”.
Julia Powles, a researcher at Cambridge University on technology and law, said Google’s response to the problem was “the classic PR response”. She added: “The media makes a fuss about something. Google goes in and hand-tweaks the result, while still claiming that it is not an editor and it is totally neutral, when clearly that is not true. It can and does change search results when it suits them.
“They keep using this analogy that they’re like a card catalogue, but they’re really more like a card shark that can be gamed. It raises deeply disturbing issues about the democratic distribution of information.”
A Google spokesperson said: “We took action within hours of being notified on Friday of the autocomplete results.” Google did not comment on its decision to alter some but not all those results raised in the article.
It said: “Our search results are a reflection of the content across the web. This means that sometimes, unpleasant portrayals of sensitive subject-matter online can affect what search results appear for a given query. These results don’t reflect Google’s own opinions or beliefs. As a company, we strongly value a diversity of perspectives, ideas and cultures.”
Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Land and one of the leading authorities on Google search, said Google faced a “very difficult, very challenging issue”. “They’ve done the PR of getting rid of some of the bad stuff quickly, and they will hope the PR spin will help this go away, but it doesn’t take away from the bigger issues. I take the concern very deeply. Google is the universal resource that people turn to. It is a concern they really need to solve.”