Google, for the most part, has managed to stay out of the global fake news debate – with sites such as Facebook receiving a lot more flak.
But after an investigation into how YouTube, part of Google’s parent company Alphabet, is proving very popular with the alt-right, something else happened.
The top story promoted on Google when the question “is Obama planning a coup” was typed into the search engine came from conspiracy website Secrets of the Fed, with the preview suggesting that Obama was a Communist “in bed with” the Chinese, and who may have been planning a coup for the end of his term.
If you're wondering if Obama is planning a coup, Google's "one true answer" is yes. FFS. pic.twitter.com/pFr7omJttU
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) March 5, 2017
That’s Danny Sullivan, journalist and founder of the blog Search Engine Land, highlighting what he’s labelled Google’s attempt at providing “one true answer” – you know, how when over recent years if you type a question into Google the site will provide an answer in a separated box at the top, rather than just a list of results.
BBC tech correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones decided to test it out on Google Home, the new virtual assistant which is yet to officially launch in the UK.
Incredibly, he was given the same information from the same site.
And here's what happens if you ask Google Home "is Obama planning a coup?" pic.twitter.com/MzmZqGOOal
— Rory Cellan-Jones (@ruskin147) March 5, 2017
OK so ignore how funny it is that Google Home doesn’t know how to pronounce coup d’etat, and just think about all of the possible websites Google could have chosen to answer that question, and the one that it did.
It’s not anything intentional on Google’s part, rather their algorithm has picked out pages that rank highly in search results – but those are not always the sites with the correct answer.
It’s an issue Google is aware of, and has reportedly intervened in some instances since this piece in the Guardian, while users can also leave feedback on a featured snippet letting Google know that an answer might be wrong.
A Google spokesperson told us: “Featured Snippets in Search provide an automatic and algorithmic match to a given search query, and the content comes from third-party sites.
“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.”