Google, democracy and the truth about internet search

An excellent article by Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian on how tech-savvy rightwingers have been able to ‘game’ the algorithms of internet giants and create a new reality where Hitler is a good guy, Jews are evil and… Donald Trump becomes president.  Just horrifying.

Again, as previously noted,  never attribute to incompetence that which can be explained by differing incentive structures.  I don’t think this issue is one of free speech – should unpleasant ideas be expressed – but one of amplification.  Should Google et al be forcibly sharing extremism with so many people?

Given Google’s dominance, I think they have an obligation to consider the Overton Window before propagating opinions.  I’ve used this analogy before: consider a town with several pubs. Behaviour tolerated in one pub may cause some to drink elsewhere. But if the customers have nowhere else to go, it seems reasonable to expect the landlord to adopt a more interventionist role.

Update:

Previously, typing the phrase “are Jews” into Google, the search engine suggested “evil”, for “are women” it again suggested “evil” and for “are Muslims” it suggested “bad”.  As of today,  the searches for Jews and women no longer returned those results, although the “are Muslims bad” autocomplete was still present.

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 raised in the article.

Why didn’t Google address this themselves?  Who made the decision to ignore muslims?  What about the rest of the points raised in the Observer article?

More from Cadwalladr:

Type this into your Google search bar: “did the hol”. And Google suggests you search for this: “Did the Holocaust happen?”

And this is the answer: no. The top result is a link to stormfront.org, a neo-Nazi site and an article entitled: “Top 10 reasons why the Holocaust didn’t happen”. The third result is the article “The Holocaust Hoax; IT NEVER HAPPENED”. The fifth is “50 reasons why the Holocaust didn’t happen.” The seventh is a YouTube video “Did the Holocaust really happen?” The ninth is “Holocaust Against Jews is a Total Lie – Proof.”

This is what Danny Sullivan, the editor of SearchEngineLand, a leading expert on Google search, means when he says “something has gone terribly wrong with Google’s algorithm”. Stormfront describes itself as “the voice of the new, embattled white minority… a community of racial realists and idealists”. It’s the kind of site that Gideon Falter, the chair of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, says is being used to radicalise a new generation of extreme, violent, rightwing individuals. It’s where Anders Breivik used to hang out online. It’s where, on its discussion forum, users gathered to celebrate the murder of Jo Cox.

And, according to Google, it’s the most authoritative source on the internet on the “question” of whether or not the Holocaust actually happened. Sceptical, educated people will of course look for other evidence. These are the searches that Google lists at the bottom of the page as suggestions for what to search next: “Holocaust never happened theory” “proof the Holocaust happened” “Holocaust fake proof” “Holocaust never happened movie” “Holocaust didn’t happen conspiracy” “did the Holocaust happen during ww2.”

Google needs to get a grip.  Quickly.