Let me start by saying I love Google products. I’m an avid Android user, and mostly everything I use to communicate with is tied to Google servers. That being said, I’m highly concerned with an issue that caught my attention over the weekend, and has yet to be corrected. I and millions of other users across the world rely heavily on Google’s Search feature to provide us with sources that may not be as easily accessible otherwise. Google helps us research, discover, interact, and win arguments–all from a simple query. What if the answers to those questions though, were wrong? What if 75% of the “knowledge” you had access to was incorrect, or just flat-out fake?
According to a post on The Outline, this all started with a simple question asked of a professor from Ohio. While lecturing about the reemergence of the KKK in the 1920’s, a student asked his professor, “Was Warren Harding, former US President ever a member of the Klan?” The professor, while confused about the question told his student that it was unlikely. A second student then pulled out their phone, searched Google, and according to the search results he indeed was, along with four other former Presidents.
The problem here isn’t the accusation of former Presidents potentially being racists (see: Current President), but rather the search coming back as fact. The problem is that so many people will take this as fact, despite the fact that a quick source check would reveal the rather murky authenticity of its source. The source in question is The Trent, an internet newspaper based out of Nigeria. It’s also worth noting that this wasn’t an original piece, the article actually originally appeared on a site called I Love Black People.
So what’s the big deal? Why am I making such a fuss about all this? Current events dictate that Google may be unintentionally fueling fake news. The very thing that caused such a shake up in the US, especially around our most recent election, is readily available to billions of people worldwide.
Google has undergone a bit of a transformation by which it no longer provides websites that may or may not contain the answers to your questions. Instead, a search simply returns the most popular link associated with what you’re asking. Most people won’t think to check the source from which they’re pulling the information from, only that they “seen it online” at some point. Google calls these results “Featured snippets,” and they are some of the most dangerous things online right now. These snippets are short clips pulled from articles online that match your search the closest. In short, they don’t necessarily have to be right, as long as they contextually match what you were looking for.
To play Devil’s Advocate, Google themselves aren’t presenting these results as the definitive answers to your questions. Your searches also won’t come back this crazy each and every time. That’s what makes this little snafu so incredibly dangerous though. There are real, legit, answers tucked away right next to articles from Breitbart, Occupy Democrats, and other extremist sites.
Now more than ever, we must be more diligent to check and double-check our sources before quoting or sharing information. Fake news is more prevalent than it ever has been before, and it’s spread so much, that even our trusted news sources have to be checked out from time to time. The media no longer has to be right, as long as they get the info to you as fast and as contextually accurate as possible.