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Fake news: Why does this simple Google search autosuggest a neo-Nazi site?

Daily ... stretch? Daily snooze? Or how about a hair-raising neo-Nazi site?.
Daily ... stretch? Daily snooze? Or how about a hair-raising neo-Nazi site?.

Google is very quick to autocomplete search results from rather innocent searches in a way that leads to murky white supremacist sites, and also places them high in search results. Why? It’s not clear, but there are some theories.

Search: is justin trudeau a

Lots of nouns could complete this search. Let’s see what Google comes up with:

 

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(Trudeau’s conversion to Islam is a fake news story we missed.)

Let’s click on is justin trudeau a muslim convert (it’s on the top of the autocomplete suggestions, after all), and see what comes up:

About half of the first page of search results are a grab bag of dodgy fake news sites, along with a prominent fourth-place link to stormfront.org.

Stormfront, a discussion board whose slogan is “White Pride Worldwide,” and whose logo features the black-and-white Celtic cross of the Ku Klux Klan, is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as “the first major hate site on the Internet.”

Stormfront’s 900,000 discussion threads include “Raising Children As A Divorced White Nationalist,” “Ask A Conservative Klansman,” and “Relatives That Don’t Get It.”

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The SPLC says it has documented close to 100 murders committed by members of the site over a single five-year period, including the 77 victims of Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik.

READ: Donald Trump brands mainstream media ‘enemy of the American people’

“Google was built on providing people with high-quality and authoritative results for their search queries,” a Google spokesperson who spoke on condition she not be identified wrote in an e-mail. “We strive to give users a breadth of content from a variety of sources and we’re committed to the principle of a free and open web. Understanding which pages on the web best answer a query is a challenging problem and we don’t always get it right.”

“When non-authoritative information ranks too high in our search results, we develop scalable, automated approaches to fix the problems, rather than manually removing these one-by-one, she wrote. “We are working on improvements to our algorithm that will help surface more high quality, credible content on the web, and we’ll continue to improve our algorithms over time in order to tackle these challenges.”

READ: Ms. World beauty queen says ‘fake news’ site stole her image to create right-wing persona

Search: daily s

A Google search which starts by typing daily s could go in many directions, nearly all of them completely harmless. A daily snuggle, perhaps, or a daily sunbeam. Or maybe a newspaper: the Daily Star, the Daily Sun, the Daily Sentinel.

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Google’s autocomplete goes in a different direction, straight into the heart of darkness. How about the white supremacist Daily Stormer, described by the SPLC as “the top hate site in America?”

“The site took its name from Der Stürmer, an astoundingly vile and pornographic Nazi newspaper,” the SPLC explains.

One former poster was Dylann Roof, who murdered nine members of a black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

“How did Dylann Roof go from a little boy who wasn’t raised in a racist home, someone who had black friends, to someone who murdered nine African-Americans as they were praying?” the SPLC’s Heidi Beirich asks in this video. “Part of the answer lies in the story of how fragile minds can be shaped by Google’s search algorithm.”

 

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“Autocomplete predictions are algorithmically generated based on users’ search activity and interests. Users search for such a wide range of material on the web — 15 per cent of searches we see every day are new. Because of this, terms that appear in Autocomplete may be unexpected or unpleasant,” the spokesperson wrote.

“We do our best to prevent offensive terms, like porn and hate speech, from appearing, but we don’t always get it right. Autocomplete isn’t an exact science and we’re always working to improve our algorithms.”

She did not directly respond to our questions about why white supremacist sites did so well in Google search.

(A story last Sunday in the Guardian suggested that Google’s search rankings were being manipulated by bots that inflate traffic to sites.)

READ: Expect more fake news from Russia, top NATO general says

But it was Google’s attempts to identify and cater to users’ interests that was part of the problem for Roof, Beirich argues:

“In Roof’s case, the more he sought out white supremacist propaganda, the more he was offered, as Google learned his preferences.”

Roof has said that his entry into white supremacist online culture began when he Googled “black on white crime.” That Google search now gives the Daily Stormer in the first page of search results.

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READ: Exciting? Sure. Staged? Maybe. What a grainy video’s murky origins tell us about fake news

In fake news news:

  • Anas Modamani is a Syrian refugee living in Germany. His selfie with Chancellor Angela Merkel became the art on a series of fake news stories linking him to terrorist attacks in Europe. This week, a German judge refused to issue an injunction ordering Facebook to remove the stories.
  • Starting in the early stages of the U.S. election, in the spring of 2015, “a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world,” the Columbia Journalism Review reports. The closed-offness of the system creates the conditions in which the White House can refer to terrorist attacks that never happened, like the “Bowling Green massacre.” Here’s what the ecosystem looks like.
  • At Buzzfeed, Craig Silverman talks to a fake news entrepreneur based in Costa Rica, who says his site, undergroundnewsreport.com, had over a million hits last week. People, right or left, “want something that confirms their notion or world view,” he explains. (The secret to his success: seeding his fake stories in several pro-Trump Facebook groups.)
  • Buzzfeed is on a roll this week on the fake news beat. They:
    • Look at how a Miami-based fake news site thriftily repurposes the same fake news item for both liberal and conservative audiences, shifting the points of outrage as needed.
    • Wade into the fever swamp of fake science and health news: “Here, climate change is a government-sponsored hoax, fluoridated water is poisonous, cannabis can cure cancer, and airplanes are constantly spraying pesticides and biological waste into the air.”
    • Explain a liberal troll’s feud with over a dozen fake news sites in eastern Europe that plagiarize his content.
    • Give a play-by-play of RT’s catastrophic but highly entertaining attempt to have a TV panel discussion about fake news
  • Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland warned on Monday that Canada, along with other Western countries, is a target of Russian disinformation operations. The context was online reports that Freeland’s grandfather had collaborated with the Nazis in wartime Poland. While the truth or falsity of the account is hard to assess, the claims themselves certainly originated in Russia.
  • In Maclean’s, Scott Gilmore sees the Freeland allegations as a sign of things to come. “Canada is a logical target,” he warns. “We are … a vocal critic of Moscow and its interference in other countries. We have to expect Russia will focus more of its clandestine efforts on us, especially as we approach the next election cycle.” He predicts fake news aimed largely at the Liberals, hacking efforts directed at journalists, politicians and the public sector generally, and funding for fringe political groups.
  • The Huffington Post finds that armies of Twitter bots are amplifying right-wing French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s social media presence.
  • Earlier this month, Irish government investigators confirmed reports that a mass grave of children had been found at a former orphanage site at Tuam, Co. Galway, in the west of the country. The discovery raised disturbing questions, but Bill Donoghue, president of the right-wing Catholic League, found a straightforward way of dealing with them: denouncing the whole thing as “fake news.” That was easy.
  • The BBC (and other organizations) look at the fake news issues with the Google Home speaker, (an Alexa-like smart device that answers questions), yours for only $279. The device is only as good as the information it can access, and some of it is drawn from the murkier corners of the Internet. Is ex-U.S. president Barack Obama planning a coup? Definitely, Google Home tells us — we can expect it by the end of last year.

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