Google was getting some qualified pats on the back in news reports before Christmas for taking action so a neo-Nazi group’s website didn’t come up at the top of search results for “Did the Holocaust happen?”
On December 20, after criticism arose concerning the results of that particular search, the Mountain View technology behemoth responded to tech website Search Engine Land’s article about the prominent position of Holocaust-deniers from neo-Nazi website Stormfront in a search result for the Holocaust. Google said it had improved its algorithm to “help surface more high quality, credible content on the web.”
Google told the website it would continue changing its algorithms “to tackle these challenges.”
Earlier, the company had suggested it had no plans to change the algorithms to deal with the Holocaust-denial problem, Fortune reported.
“We do not remove content from our search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content, malware and violations of our webmaster guidelines,” a Google spokesperson told Fortune.
But whatever changes Google has made in an apparent response to criticism have not booted the Holocaust deniers from the results when a user asks whether the Holocaust happened. On December 27, SiliconBeat asked Google, “Did the Holocaust happen?”
The first three results were for news reports on the controversy over neo-Nazis getting top position in results for that question. Then came two results from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The sixth result was from neo-Nazi group Stormfront: “Top 10 reasons why the holocaust didn’t happen.”
Now, Google has a challenging job if it’s trying to ensure its search results don’t give voice to hate. The company’s secret algorithms take numerous factors into account when producing search result rankings, The Guardian reported.
“These factors include how many and which other websites link to a page, how much traffic it receives, and how often a page is updated,” the report said.
And the system can end up favoring those with extreme outlooks, according to the report.
“People who are very active politically are typically the most partisan, which means that extremist views peddled actively on blogs and fringe media sites get elevated in the search ranking.”
Also, search-result rankings can be influenced by input of “a high volume of biased search terms,” Brittan Heller, director of technology and society at the Anti-Defamation League, told The Guardian.
The problem is that prominence in search results can lend credibility when it’s undeserved and can have “an enormous impact on people without their knowledge that they are being manipulated,” Robert Epstein, a researcher at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, told The Guardian.
Googlers themselves are troubled by the problem with extremists and algorithms, wrote Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land.
“There’s no question that those within Google itself are disturbed by what’s being raised,” Sullivan wrote after meeting with executives and engineers working in Search at the firm.
Significant censorship by Google could open a Pandora’s Box, Sullivan suggested.
“If the policy is that you just remove things that aren’t based in fact, much of the web can become vulnerable to censorship from Google,” he wrote. “For example, would you have to remove major religious organizations because these groups are based on unprovable faith — the very essence for most of them — rather than demonstrable fact?”
Academics have speculated that Google resists taking on the role of editor to the web because action on one issue would lead to calls for many other controversial results to be changed, according to The Guardian.
University of Maryland law professor Frank Pasquale told the paper that significant editorial intervention by Google would be “a tacit admission that it was a publishing company and not a ‘neutral’ platform, as it maintains.”
Google did not immediately respond to questions from SiliconBeat about what it was intending to achieve by changing its algorithm.
Photo: Inside a Google data center in Iowa (AP Photo/Google, Connie Zhou, File)