Humongously successful search company Google, which these days prefers to be called Alphabet, just announced it made $26 billion in earnings in the last three months alone. The vast majority of those earnings come from its well-known search engine that we all use ubiquitously every day, and we generally click on one of the first results we see at the top of the search engine results page.
It’s fair to assume that those top-ranked search results are the best and most reliable websites on their respective topics, right? It may be time to rethink that assumption, when considering that mass murderer Dylann Roof was inspired by those top-ranked search results to commit the June 2015 murder of nine parishioners at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Roof’s very chilling personal journal is highlighted in bits of the video. “The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case,” Roof wrote in his journal. “This prompted me to type in the words ‘black on white crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since that day.”
On that day, the top search result was provided by a modern-day white supremacist site called the Council of Conservative Citizens, with follow-up results from conspicuously Nazi-sounding websites with names like Stormfront and Daily Stormer. (Google’s algorithm has changed slightly since then. Should you run that same search today, you’ll see two different alt-right sites with spurious claims at the top of your results. Progress?)
“Google’s algorithm can promote false propaganda written by extremists at the expense of accurate information from reputable sources,” the Southern Poverty Law Center notes in the video. “Google says its algorithm takes into account how trustworthy, reputable or authoritative a source is. In Roof’s case, it clearly did not.”
The video notes similar hate speech results displayed at the top of search results pages for Martin Luther King, Jr,, the Holocaust, and Islam.
Google makes an attempt to explain its search result algorithm on their How Search Works page, a collection of banal animations and maddeningly vague sentence snippets. Some of their freshly minted $26 billion might be well-used explaining this process more thoroughly, or even improving it.