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Google's Featured Snippets Are Worse Than Fake News (theoutline.com) 183

Adrianne Jeffries, reporting for The Outline: Peter Shulman, an associate history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, was lecturing on the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s when a student asked an odd question: Was President Warren Harding a member of the KKK? Shulman was taken aback. He confessed that he was not aware of that allegation, but that Harding had been in favor of anti-lynching legislation, so it seemed unlikely. But then a second student pulled out his phone and announced that yes, Harding had been a Klan member, and so had four other presidents. It was right there on Google, clearly emphasized inside a box at the top of the page. "I understand what Google is trying to do, and it's work that perhaps requires algorithmic aid," Shulman said in an email. "But in this instance, the question its algorithm scoured the internet to answer is simply a poorly conceived one. There have been no presidents in the Klan." Google needs to invest in human experts who can judge what type of queries should produce a direct answer like this, Shulman said. "Or, at least in this case, not send an algorithm in search of an answer that isn't simply 'There is no evidence any American president has been a member of the Klan.' It'd be great if instead of highlighting a bogus answer, it provided links to accessible, peer-reviewed scholarship."
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Google's Featured Snippets Are Worse Than Fake News

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  • by ranton ( 36917 ) on Monday March 06, 2017 @10:06AM (#53984675)

    If sites like Google and Facebook want to let algorithms decide which information to highlight, they will need to spend more time doing human assisted ranking of various information sources. Crowd sourcing will be very helpful here, but you will still need some human moderators who can perform real research to help determine which information has credibility. I know too many otherwise intelligent people who are becoming so disenfranchised they just don't believe anything they read anymore, which is the ultimate goal of these misinformation campaigns.

    • by pastafazou ( 648001 ) on Monday March 06, 2017 @10:09AM (#53984685)
      Yes, that's all we need is crowd sourcing to help determine the truth. Popular opinion should matter more than actual facts.
      • by ranton ( 36917 ) on Monday March 06, 2017 @10:13AM (#53984707)

        Yes, that's all we need is crowd sourcing to help determine the truth. Popular opinion should matter more than actual facts.

        Crowd sourcing would not be the only source of data, but it can provide a great deal of help. Once you have rated a relatively small number of information sources as reputable or not, you can view which users are ranking those few sources correctly. You can then mostly ignore the users who are giving false ratings on the few sources you know are not reputable, and give more weight to the users who are ranking your control group more accurately.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 06, 2017 @10:45AM (#53984859)

          While helpful, I still agree with pastafazou. Truth cannot be determined by consensus.

          • by raymorris ( 2726007 ) on Monday March 06, 2017 @12:01PM (#53985333) Journal

            Truth cannot be determined by consensus, of course. However, you can get close (high probability of truth), and the interesting thing is, it's basically just another application of the PageRank algorithm which made Google.

            Suppose I showed you sources written by two people who won Nobel prizes in chemistry both saying the same about some chemistry fact, and a Google search revealed no similarly credible sources who disagree. We'd say the laurettes are very likely telling us the truth.

            If you look at all of the sources cited in Encyclopedia Britannica, that'll give you a list of pretty credible sources; not perfect but pretty good. The second-order list of sources which are in turn referenced by two or more of the Britannica sources is a much larger list of pretty credible sources. If two or three or four of these sources agree on some statement, AND none disagree, the statement is very likely true.

            • FYI Linus Pauling, laureate in physics and chemistry, spent the last 20 years of his life proselytizing that vitamin C was a cure for what ailed you. He was convinced he'd get a 3rd Nobel in medicine when he was finally proven correct.

              Even brilliant scientists sometimes go off half cocked in their later years. When somebody's mind had a fine edge, but it's been lost, they rarely notice and just keep talking.

              • by ranton ( 36917 )

                Suppose I showed you sources written by two people who won Nobel prizes in chemistry both saying the same about some chemistry fact, and a Google search revealed no similarly credible sources who disagree. We'd say the laurettes are very likely telling us the truth.

                FYI Linus Pauling, laureate in physics and chemistry, spent the last 20 years of his life proselytizing that vitamin C was a cure for what ailed you. He was convinced he'd get a 3rd Nobel in medicine when he was finally proven correct.

                I was under the impression there were many similarly credible sources who disagreed with Linus Pauling, so I'm not sure how this example refutes the GP's point,

                • All you need is two, you could find a second for just about any position. Especially around vitamin C in the 1980s. It was like anti-vax for a minute or ten. Real science was drowned out on public media like google search. You'd have to get to page 2 before getting to credible information. Happens today.

              • That's exactly the same (partial) counter-example I thought of when I wrote the post you replied to. I suspect we both thought of that exact same thing, rather than some other statement, precisely because it's so unusual. However, before, during, and after Pauling's vitamin C fetish, other reputable sources showed that Pauling was mistaken (many times). Therefore the algorithm as I described it would not be fooled.

              • Pauling won the Nobel prizes for Chemistry and Peace (not Physics.)

                Pauling was not the first great scientist to go wacky in his later years.

                https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

        • You can then mostly ignore the users who are giving false ratings

          For that to work, you need to be able to identify individual users. i.e. Loss of anonymity on the Internet. Otherwise, once the search engines classify an online identity ("user") as unreliable and start disregarding it for search result ranking, people will just create a new identity and post the same false information under that identity

          Also, it's not just trolls and nutty conspiracy theorists doing this. A large portion of the Intern

      • Yes, that's all we need is crowd sourcing to help determine the truth. Popular opinion should matter more than actual facts.

        That's not what he said. Your logic sucks (or your reading comprehension... or both.) Stop putting words on other people's mouth. Pay attention to what they are saying. It will do your life good.

      • Popular opinion should matter more than actual facts.

        It worked for diversity

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Problem is if you start trying to filter fake news, you get people screaming at your for "censorship" and "blocking alternate views". That feeds into their victim mentality.

      I guarantee you will see it in the comments on this story. Someone will defend the claim that four presidents were members of the KKK, saying it's a valid theory and that suppressing it is just censorship and who is Google to decide what is true etc.

      • by ranton ( 36917 )

        Problem is if you start trying to filter fake news, you get people screaming at your for "censorship" and "blocking alternate views". That feeds into their victim mentality.

        I guarantee you will see it in the comments on this story. Someone will defend the claim that four presidents were members of the KKK, saying it's a valid theory and that suppressing it is just censorship and who is Google to decide what is true etc.

        Instead of blocking fake news, a better solution would be to highlight mainstream well researched information while still allowing users to view fringe information which is clearly tagged as such in the results. I don't think we should ever get to a point where we block access to incorrect information. We should instead try to reach a point where it is easy to identify incorrect information.

        • In this case the source of the false information tagged itself. When the article title starts with "REVEALED:" then it's a pretty good hint that it's not a good source of information. When did people start blindly believing everything that gets posted onto the Internet? I'm slightly skeptical of what's on the news sites because of errors, people trying to hide things, or just the bias of the news agent. How naive do you have to be just to blindly accept the first result that comes back in the search resu

        • I don't think "incorrect information" is even really the problem. There are tons of ways to lie by omission, or to lie with true facts but fake context. This is because people make decisions based on narrative and emotion, and then justify them with facts (while ignoring contradictory facts). Extremely few people start with facts and then form opinions.

          A news source that runs articles featuring the odd Somalian immigrant who happens to be doctor or who volunteers at an animal shelter, while at the same time

    • by Joviex ( 976416 )

      If sites like Google and Facebook want to let algorithms decide which information to highlight, they will need to spend more time doing human assisted ranking of various information sources.

      But it isn't google et. al. that are the problem. If the information is shit to begin with, it will only return what you are asking for (the most "relevant" results to your inquiry)

      The problem is the uneducated mass putting in the shitty information laced opinion everywhere top begin with; even a human search engine would have to pick through all that noisy shit pile of ignorance.

      • even a human search engine would have to pick through all that noisy shit pile of ignorance.

        Also, truth is simple and boring. Conspiracy and lies to counter simple truths are complex and abundant.

        I wanted to show my 4 year old the moon landing, so I put "moon landing" into YouTube. The first result is the moon landing footage. Everything else was pages and pages of "MOON LANDING HOAX" videos. An uneducated person would assume, just based on volume, that the moon landing was faked. In reality, in support of the moon landing, there's not much to say. "Here's the footage."

    • On the other hand, google already managed something similar in the past :
      its page rank system.

      Back when Google was simply a keyword search engine,
      it didn't simply return *all* webpages (that it knows off) where the query keywords appears.
      it did return *the top* webpages, using a whole ranking system to assess the quality of the page.

      Whereas other more primitive search engines could be easily fooled by a link farming (e.g: forum and wiki spamming),
      it did require quite some art to manage a google bomb success

    • by Sique ( 173459 ) on Monday March 06, 2017 @01:53PM (#53986161) Homepage
      If you read the article, you will stumble upon another problem.

      Fake news often come as a statement, which has not been denied yet. At the moment the fake news is all the rage, there are no credible refutations. They just appear after the fake news leaves the bubble and someone is really determined to get to the ground and comes up with some evidence to the contrary. If Google (or any other news source) tries to algorithmically find the one true answer, all they have to build on are rumours spreading everywhere and thus apparently confirming the fake news.

      The starting point was the question if Warren G. Harding was a member in the KKK. If you look at the wikipedia pages, online biographies or other sources, no one explicitely states "No, there is no evidence that Warren G. Harding was a member in the KKK.". It will in general be that way, because otherwise the list of things Warren G. Harding wasn't would be infinitely long. He neither was a chinese mandarin nor a poisonous frog, he never went to the moon, and he was not made from steel sheets. He's nothing to eat, and none of his mollusculous appendicles ever touched the Earth's core.

      We have a new version of Russell's teapot here: You can come up with any random statement, and the probability is high that you don't find a debunking of that statement somewhere on the internet. So there is nothing online to prove that this random statement is false, and the attempt to find the One True Answer will confirm the statement, turning a not denied statement apparently into a true one.

    • Google is not a truth finder; it's an internet search engine. Finding truth is, as always, an exercise left for the reader.

    • ... the Universe and Everything [google.com]. So who cares about the rest (like the preferred size for DCP subtitles [miblog.alma.ch], which is apparently the same anyway)?

  • Teaching moment (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jbmartin6 ( 1232050 ) on Monday March 06, 2017 @10:11AM (#53984699)
    I wonder if Prof took the time to review with the students the difference between a search result and a fact.
    • This posting is provided 'AS IS' without warranty of any kind, implied or otherwise.

      But you did not specifically issued a disclaimer saying it is not fit for use in designing nuclear reactors. So if someone used this posting to design nuclear reactors you are on the hook for liability.

      That is why most software packages have this very specific disclaimer: "You acknowledge that Software is not designed, licensed or intended for ... in the design, construction, operation or maintenance of any nuclear facility."

      • I'll get my lawyer to rewrite it.
      • That is why most software packages have this very specific disclaimer: "You acknowledge that Software is not designed, licensed or intended for ... in the design, construction, operation or maintenance of any nuclear facility."

        I think the real reason is that there are limitations on exporting code designed for nuclear facilities. So it's more a "please don't ship me to Gitmo for letting an Iranian use my software" than a disavowal of liability in case of mushroom clouds.

    • I wonder if Prof took the time to review with the students the difference between a search result and a fact.

      (Professor) "Students, let this be a lesson. Don't trust those search results."

      *Every student bookmarks Wikipedia*

      (Students) "Well, that was easy. I wonder why everyone is so worried about fake news..."

    • by pr0t0 ( 216378 )

      If what I've heard working with Google engineers on IT projects is any indicator, to them there is no difference between a search result and a fact.

      "Oh professor! You're data on the subject on the KKK's influence on US presidents is woefully, laughably inaccurate. No, I'm afraid President Harding was, in fact, the leader of the KKK for a short time. If you were smart enough to work for Google, you'd know that."

      It helps if imagine Hogwarts Professor Gilderoy Lockhart saying it. Hmm. I wonder if JK Rowling ha

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ScentCone ( 795499 )

      I wonder if Prof took the time to review with the students the difference between a search result and a fact.

      No, the students were too busy heading out the door to join in a good old fashioned Berkeley-Style Bloody Beat Down of some people who weren't sufficiently towing the liberal line. If Google says it, it's good enough to break out the black masks and the clubs, man. Or at least to smash up some immigrant's limousine, or burn a coffee shop.

    • by TopherC ( 412335 )

      I was thinking the same thing when I read the article. This was actually a great teachable moment. Take the time to show how to dig deeper to uncover the truth. Follow the sources of information, etc.

      This isn't Google's fault. They can improve for sure, which is how the article reads, but that's not the real lesson here! We just need to keep in mind how to react to this or any other news (internet or not) from any source. One of the primary roles of education needs to be to instill skepticism and how to dig

    • I have teenagers and am an online instructor for a university class (mostly late teens/early 20 year olds). I am consistently amazed at how readily "that" generation accepts anything they read on the internet. It's like they have no filter. I've tried imparting critical thinking skills to my own teenagers, but it doesn't seem to stick since just about every day they relate some new "fact" they learned on social media that I have to correct.

      • I vaguely recall being that way when I was their age. I'm not so sure it is unique to any specific generation.
        • I vaguely recall being that way when I was their age. I'm not so sure it is unique to any specific generation.

          I have to agree. I remember being taught how to write a thesis 20 years ago and our class being specifically told by the teacher that magazine, newspaper, and internet sources were encouraged (as it gave us practice with the different ways to do citations), but that a lot of students usually don't bother to verify the validity of the source. He had a rule that if you quoted a reference that looked suspicious to him and he was able to find multiple reputable sources that contradicted yours, you'd lose a lo

      • I think the difference is when I was growing up there was no WWW (there was an Internet, but we weren't aware of it). So reading material was pretty easily distinguished between fiction and non-fiction. If I was reading something and I don't know who the author is and what their credentials are I would assume it was fiction.

        • Heheh seems like the same rule should still apply
        • No. I antedate the Internet by a fair number of years, and I read a lot of non-fiction that was misleading to the point of fiction. When I was young, I believed a lot of that crap. If somebody credible wrote a book that was mostly in accordance with the other book I read on the subject, and claimed something that differed from the book, what was I to believe?

          Example: in June 1942, there was a carrier battle near Midway Island between the US and Japan that was a decisive US victory. Two of the Japane

  • When I read these stories, I find myself wondering if I am the only one aware that humans write algorithms.
    • by ancientt ( 569920 ) <ancientt@yahoo.com> on Monday March 06, 2017 @10:38AM (#53984815) Homepage Journal

      I'm more bothered by the implication that the results of an internet search engine should not return results representing what's on the internet.

      • That's not the implication. If google just returned results that would be fine. google attempted to answer a "question" and got the answer wrong.
    • I know quite a number of machine learning researchers and they're not just aware of that, they're also aware of the implicit bias that gets built into machine learning systems based on the training sets. It's a huge problem and it's hard to solve. While I feel like Google has both the resources and responsibility to be a better actor in this regard, only by exposing their system to real world challenges can they actually suss out what needs to be fixed. It's a bit of a catch-22--you don't want to release un

  • Unfortunately... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bluegutang ( 2814641 ) on Monday March 06, 2017 @10:19AM (#53984735)

    It'd be great if instead of highlighting a bogus answer, it provided links to accessible, peer-reviewed scholarship."

    That scholarship is behind a paywall.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I forget, are we calling out Woodrow Wilson for his racist "Birth of a Nation" behavior, Klan sympathies, and "Northern Aggression" political responses, or are we still rewarding his legacy because of his liberal socialist policies that started the modern era of the all-encompassing federal government?

  • http://lmgtfy.com/?q=US+Presid... [lmgtfy.com]

    Looking at the sources for most of the links it's just that there's a shitload of bogus crap on the internet. Good example of false authority though

  • But the snippet problem can easily be resolved. Worse than fake news, not really. Fake news will be around and tossed around almost as a weapon, cf., this thread.
  • by cs96and ( 896123 ) on Monday March 06, 2017 @10:39AM (#53984819)
    Typing the same search "presidents in the klan" into DDG also puts the same fake news result at the top (at least it's at the top if I set my location to UK. If I set it to worldwide it comes in second). Bing also puts the same story at the top. So this is not just Google's problem. It's a problem that all search vendors need to tackle collectively.
    • How does anyone combat this? Should someone write articles on the negative of everything?

      This just in! There is no evidence of a U.S. President being in the Klu Klux Klan! Children are NOT being molested in the basement of a Pizza parlor!

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by PopeRatzo ( 965947 )

        This just in! There is no evidence of a U.S. President being in the Klu Klux Klan!

        We now know that Barack Obama was in fact a member of the Klan, and here's photographic proof:

        http://img.theepochtimes.com/n... [theepochtimes.com]

        That's how he was able to sneak into Trump Tower to bug all the phones.

    • Well, if you are searching for the false article about presidents in the clan that everyone is talking about, then it is just what you wanted! Search engines are just a map between search terms and results, where rank is largely determined by popularity. So there is always the effective filter of "perform this search assuming I want the result most often chosen in pop culture". If you wanted a "only include verified claims" you're using the wrong tool. And who would believe something on the internet fro
  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Monday March 06, 2017 @10:39AM (#53984821)

    Tabloid trash used to be contained within that special group of "news" providers, and quarantined near grocery store cash registers.

    Unfortunately, the quest to extract revenue derived from clicks has pushed damn near everyone to publish and aggregate a similar flavor of clickbait bullshit.

    Hey Capitalism, stop rewarding Bullshit. Otherwise, You Reap what You Sow.

    • by Fire_Wraith ( 1460385 ) on Monday March 06, 2017 @10:49AM (#53984889)
      Capitalism really isn't who/what you want to blame though. Capitalism just encourages taking the most profitable action/route. The underlying problem is that we, as humans, can't get enough of this clickbait bullshit.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by geekmux ( 1040042 )

        Capitalism really isn't who/what you want to blame though. Capitalism just encourages taking the most profitable action/route. The underlying problem is that we, as humans, can't get enough of this clickbait bullshit.

        Capitalism is capitalizing on the true underlying problem.

        Because of technology, humans have become obscenely lazy.

        It's far easier to believe and perpetuate bullshit than put in actual effort to find truth.

    • I completely agree, but the problem is that we only have ourselves to blame. The only "newspapers" making money are the tabloids. Same with online clicks and views, it's the trash people click on. If the majority of people wanted long-form impartial investigative journalism, that is what we'd end up with next to breath-mints at the checkout line.

      Collectively, we, are getting exactly what we deserve and want. Does capitalism as an entity want us to consume immaterial garbage, you bet it does, but again, at t

  • Peer reviewed (Score:5, Insightful)

    by senatorpjt ( 709879 ) on Monday March 06, 2017 @10:48AM (#53984877)

    Maybe the problem is that the incorrect information is free and the peer-reviewed article costs $30 to read.

  • How about he fails the student since the kid obviously doesn't know how to research and cite sources? This is something said student should have learned prior to attending a university.
  • Like the water well that was poisoned but later cleaned up. Problem is nobody trusts the well anymore, and this is what happened to news media.
  • The problem here is not Google snippets, the problem is ignorant/dumb students with poor truth filters. You need to start out with a basic knowledge of history. You used to be able to get this knowledge from your history books in junior high and high school (I am assuming that you still can if you want to). Then you find news outlets who do a good job of being right and reporting the story accurately and in it's entirety instead of grinding a bias into every sentence. When you are browsing the internet,

  • Part of the reason for the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution was the presumption that good information would conquer bad in the 'marketplace of ideas'. Do you believe that the Earth is round? Or that the Earth orbits the sun? With freedom of speech, you could advocate those ideas and, it was hoped, overcome the flat-earth and geocentric hypotheses.

    Then we had superstition, urban myths, and fake news.

    Perhaps the truth-will-prevail folks failed to account for some important factors:
    1) While people mig

  • Seriously. I think if they assign negative truth value to anything appearing in a story on a web page which has an ad for "male enhancement products" that features someone holding a geoduck clam in a disturbingly suggestive manner... that would improve the accuracy by an order of magnitude.
    • ...an ad for "male enhancement products" that features someone holding a geoduck clam in a disturbingly suggestive manner...

      Wait, what? Wtf is a geoduck clam? I see that running an AdBlock plugin since they were invented has deprived me of some of the wondrous variety of the Internet.

      I think.. I might... nope, false alarm. I don't care. And I will leave unasked the question of what molluscs have to do with male enhancement.

I find you lack of faith in the forth dithturbing. - Darse ("Darth") Vader

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