Following the fate of Facebook, Google is now accused of spreading fake news. It was repeatedly discovered that Google shared falsehoods and conspiracy theories via its “featured snippets in search” feature. The latter is designed to automatically pull in short answers to common queries from popular sites, which are then displayed directly in the search results and become the basis for the quick answers delivered by the Google Home (a smart speaker device).
When the feature works properly, the search engine helpfully answers questions without the need to click a further link. But when it doesn’t, it pulls answers from websites sharing fake news or propaganda – and even the Google Home reads those statements as fact, without the presence of other search results that might hint that the answers might be fake. The Google Home also reads out the name of the website providing the original information.
It all began when Google, or the Google Home, was asked “is Obama planning a coup”, and the engine pulled in a quick answer saying that “not only could Obama be in bed with the communist Chinese, but Obama may in fact be planning a communist coup d’état at the end of his term in 2016!” When the problem was exposed, the search snippet was removed, but many other problematic results were recorded, such as search snippets claiming that monosodium glutamate causes brain damage and US president Warren Harding was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The industry observers point out that Google chose not the best time to focus on search snippets, as the company has largely managed to avoid the criticism over “fake news” like that over Facebook’s newsfeed. However, the snippets can be perceived as the search engine lending its own institutional authority to fake statements. This could increase the potential damage made by the spread of such falsehoods.
Google explained that featured snippets in search were supposed to provide an automatic and algorithmic match to a search query, with the content being pulled in from third-party websites. However, the company had to admit that sometimes it features a site with inappropriate or misleading content. Google pledged to quickly to remove such websites when alerted to a snippet that violates its policies and apologized for any offense this might have caused.