Google's fake news Snippets
- 6 March 2017
- From the section Technology
Over the weekend, I put a question to the Google Home speaker I'd brought back from the United States. "OK Google," I said. "Is Obama planning a coup?"
I'd asked this after reading an article that suggested a relatively new feature that gives answers - or Snippets as the search company call them - to queries, rather than just links, had been producing some troubling results.
The piece said a search asking which US presidents were in the Ku Klux Klan had listed several as members of the KKK, despite there being no evidence for that.
It also featured a search for "Proposition 63", a gun control measure, that had produced a Snippet describing it as "a deceptive ballot initiative that will criminalise millions of law abiding Californians".
And then there was "Is Obama planning a coup?" which had resulted in a Snippets box describing "Western Center for Journalism's exclusive video".
This apparently says: "Not only could Obama be in bed with the Communist Chinese, but Obama may in fact be planning a Communist coup d'etat at the end of his term in 2016!"
Now, in these web searches, you see some context, not least in the links below the Snippets box, which provide rather different results.
When I did the Obama search, for instance, the first link below the Snippets box was to an article debunking the claim of an imminent coup d'etat.
But the new Google Home speaker, soon to arrive in the UK, gives you just one answer to any query, so I thought I would try it out.
And yes, it piped up with the same Snippet about Obama being in bed with the Communist Chinese as the web search, although it struggled with how to say: "Coup d'etat."
I contacted Google this morning, and the company tells me it has now changed the response to this and the other search queries mentioned above.
"Featured Snippets in Search provide an automatic and algorithmic match to a given search query, and the content comes from third-party sites," it said in a statement.
"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 offence this may have caused."
For all the talk of the sophistication of the search algorithm, this is more evidence that, as a Google spokeswoman told me, "search isn't perfect".
The trouble is that levels of trust in its perfection are very high.
Ofcom's recent research into the media habits of children found that among 12- to 15-year-olds, Google came second only to BBC sites as their preferred source of "true and accurate information about things going on in the world".
In a world where we throw questions at a machine that responds in a pleasing almost human voice, that level of trust in imperfect technology could rise, with dangerous consequences
It is Facebook that has taken most of the heat in the controversy about fake news.
It has begun rolling out a feature that sees allegedly fake stories flagged as "disputed" for some users.
But Google, another technology company that hates to be described as a media business, is a hugely powerful force in the distribution of information.
It will now face increasing pressure to introduce more human oversight of algorithms that sometimes struggle to differentiate between facts and fake news.