Google ‘is unhappy’ with Holocaust denial beating the truth in its search results – but it probably makes more money that way
Prisoners being transported to Auschwitz, 1944. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
The Holocaust did not happen. At least not in the world of Google, it seems. One week ago, I typed “did the hol” into a Google search box and clicked on its autocomplete suggestion, “Did the Holocaust happen?” And there, at the top of the list, was a link to Stormfront, a neo-Nazi white supremacist website and an article entitled “Top 10 reasons why the Holocaust didn’t happen”.
On Monday, Google confirmed it would not remove the result: “We are saddened to see that hate organisations still exist. The fact that hate sites appear in search results does not mean that Google endorses these views.”
The Independent ran the story. As did Fortune. And the Daily Mail. And the Jerusalem Post. And the Drudge Report. But Google held firm. David Duke, former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, tweeted his support for the decision. And over on Stormfront – the website where Anders Breivik nurtured his ideas – members celebrated.
And still, anyone searching for information about the Holocaust – if it was real, if it happened, if it was a hoax, if it was fake – was being served up neo-Nazi propaganda as the top result.
Until Friday. When I gamed Google’s algorithm. I succeeded in doing what Google said was impossible. I, a journalist with almost zero computer knowhow, succeeded in changing the search order of Google’s results for “did the Holocaust happen” and “was the Holocaust a hoax”. I knocked Stormfront off the top of the list. I inserted Wikipedia’s entry on the Holocaust as the number one result. I displaced a lie with a fact.
Google search screengrab. Photograph: Google
How did I achieve this impossible feat? Not through writing articles. Or shaming the company into action. I did it with the only language that Google understands: money. Google has shown that it will not respond to outrage or public sentiment or any sense of morality or ethics. It does not accept that leading people with a genuine inquiry about whether the Holocaust happened to a neo-Nazi website is grossly irresponsible or that it demeans the memory of the six million Jews who died. But it was prepared to take my cold, hard cash. A Google spokesman said: “We never want to make money from searches for Holocaust denial, and we don’t allow regular advertising on those terms.”
And yet, it has already made £24.01 out of me. (This was the initial cost – it has since risen to £289.) Because this is what I did: I paid to place a Google advert at the top of its search results. “The Holocaust really happened,” I wrote as the headline to my advert. And below it: “6 million Jews really did die. These search results are propagating lies. Please take action.”
I did this via Google’s AdSense programme. This is the bedrock of everything that Google does, its core business: selling ads against search results. It’s this that contributes the bulk of the $21.5bn (£17.2bn) profit that Google makes per quarter.
AdSense helpfully suggested possible “Ad group ideas” and search terms that included: “holocaust hoax”, “was the holocaust fake” and “did the holocaust happen”. And it told me how many searches a month are made for these terms: all in, 9,480. Or 113,760 a year. Or the population of Cambridge.
All of whom are being informed by Google that the Holocaust didn’t happen. And are being directed to Stormfront, the website where Anders Breivik used to hang out online and whose members celebrated the death of Jo Cox.
Jewish children, survivors of Auschwitz, Poland, February 1945. Photograph: Getty Images
Lilian Black, chair of The Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association, and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, called it appalling. “I’m so shocked. Google has a responsibility for its actions. It’s almost like saying we know that the trains are running into Birkenau, but we’re not responsible for what’s happening at the end of it. They shape people’s thinking and are disparaging the memory of people like my grandparents who were gassed.
“More than that, it’s where this leads. It’s about its relevance today as much as the past. Our learning centre is in Kirklees, where Jo Cox was murdered. What is the matter with people? Can’t they see where this leads? And to have a huge worldwide organisation refusing to acknowledge this. That’s what they think their role is? To be a bystander? To just stand by? They’re committing a hate crime, in my view.”
A Google spokesman said: “The goal of search is to provide the most relevant and useful results for our users. Clearly, we don’t always get it right, but we continually work to improve our algorithms.
“This is a challenging problem, and something we’re thinking deeply about in terms of how we can do a better job. Search is a reflection of the content that exists on the web. The fact that hate sites appear in search results in no way means that Google endorses these views.”
Frank Pasquale, professor of law at Maryland University, a leading expert on “algorithmic accountability”, called it “gross hypocrisy”. “They frequently say that Google search is not just about giving you a list of sources, but rather to answer your question. And empirically speaking, people tend to treat Google like an authority. So this is an appalling shirking of responsibility. It’s about money. It always is. The commercial imperative trumps all other aims at the company, including moral ones.”
The issue is not that Google is refusing to “edit” the results about the Holocaust, the deeper question is about why Stormfront is number one. Google said: “We handle billions of queries every day and our goal is to give you the most relevant answer to your query as quickly as possible. The issue you have raised is one where we are very unhappy with the quality of the results.
“While it might seem tempting to fix the results of an individual query by hand, that approach does not scale to the many different variants of that query and the queries that we have not yet seen. So we prefer to take a scaleable algorithmic approach to fix problems, rather than removing these one by one.”
But Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, and a leading expert on search, in an article that was largely sympathetic to the challenge facing Google, still noted: “It’s bizarre that something like that Holocaust denial post is showing tops in Google. It has no great number of links pointing at it, according to a Moz tool I used [a method of examining where a website links to]. The Wikipedia page below it should carry far more authority.”
And he suggests a reason why it doesn’t: that Google has changed its algorithm to reward popular results over authoritative ones. For the reason that it makes Google more money.
If Stormfront is back at number one when you read this, it’s because I’ve run out of funds. Each click through costs £1.12 and I have a £200 per day limit. @carolecadwalla on Twitter for more information.
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