The naivety of evil

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In 2015, Google dropped the famous “Don’t be evil” manta from its code of conduct for something a little more banal (“Shareholders to Google: Don’t Be Evil, Stop dodging Taxes” adapted from and licensed by citizen4taxjustice under CC BY 2.0)

When Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire spoke MacEwan University in January 2013, he posed a question to the audience:

“What if Google went rogue?”

It was an honest question. Google is such a fixture of modern-day life – from web searching and navigation to office tools and cloud storage (not to mention it’s Android operating system runs nearly half of all smartphones out) – that we take it for granted, like gravity or the sunrise.

I often use the search function as a makeshift dictionary on-the-go, but just because it that doesn’t mean it’s always right.

In a piece for Slate, Tom Scocca set out to debunk a myth that onions only take five minutes to caramelize. Later on, he checked Google for new results on the topic, only to find a Google snippet answering the question incorrectly, referencing his own article as the source.

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Google’s “snippits” function supplies quick answers to simple questions using an algorithm to sift through its search results (Screen grab by Gizmodo)

The problem, Scocca said in a CBC interview, is that “there are some people who are putting out bad information and amplifying the bad information in a way that Google picks it up.” In other words, publishers can engineer falsehoods, fake news, and alternative facts in a way that search engine algorithm recognize and promote bunk results as relevant.

It’s called Search Engine Optimization – a tactic used by online communicators to float content to the top of search results list. Used incorrectly, it can easily lead audiences astray.

And this wasn’t the first time time a snippet was wrong.

The Toronto Star reported that when asked whether Obama was planning a coup, Google answered

“According to details exposed in Western Center for Journalism’s exclusive video, not only could Obama be in bed with communist Chinese, but Obama may in fact be planning a communist coup d’etat at the end of his term in 2016!”

Both those snippets have since been corrected and removed, respectively, but if you want to see it in action for yourself, try asking “Why can’t Calliou grow hair?” (Trigger warning)

At the time of Dallaire’s talk, Google had a mantra: “Don’t Be Evil.” Writing for Time Magazine, Tanya Basau reported that the company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin explained the slogan in terms of the trust users placed on Google’s search engine algorithm.

I doubt those snippet snafus were intentional, let alone malicious, but they offer us a lesson: In the information age, technology is no substitute for vigilance.

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