Google is promoting fake news and wild conspiracy theories, including Obama planning a coup

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Obama is planning a secret communist coup to overthrow the United States government.

At least, that’s what Google says.

The Californian search giant is being criticised because of how it promotes fake news and wild conspiracy theories on its smart home device and in its search results via the Featured Snippets feature — including the nutty claim that Obama is “in bed with the Communist Chinese.”

Below is a video — filmed by the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones — of Google Home spouting the nonsense answer. He asks the smart-home device “is Obama planning a coup?”, to which it replies that “Obama may in fact be planning a Communist coup d’etat at the end of his term in 2016.”

So what’s going on?

It’s Google’s Featued Snippets feature that’s the problem — and it’s not the first time this kind of screw-up has happened. The feature takes info from around the web to provide the user with a definitive answer to a query without having to leave the search box. When you search “Who was the last King of England?” and it tells you “George VI,” that’s the feature at work.

Last king of england googleGoogleThe text comes from — but it is presented authoritatively by Google.

A version of this feature is also available in Google Assistant, the company’s virtual assistant that comes built into Google Home and some phones, providing snappy answers to users’ queries.

But unfortunately, there’s a whole lot of inaccurate information on the internet, and Google isn’t always great at identifying it.

Here’s another example. Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Search Engine Land, asks his Google Home “Are Republicans fascists?” The answer: “Yes. Republicans equals Nazis.”

These answers are alarming, but the problem isn’t new. Google has been repeatedly criticised over false answers being promoted via the feature before. In December 2016, The Guardian reported that it promoted an answer saying that “every woman has some degree of her prostitute in her. Every woman has some evil in her.”

These are typically manually fixed when brought to Google’s attention — but the danger remains that undiscovered answers will continue to fool people looking for information.

In a post on Search Engine Land, Sullivan rounds up a number of other examples, some old and some new — including Google falsely claiming multiple US presidents were in the KKK.

These screw-ups can be particularly dangerous on Google Home

The fact that these kinds of answers are also being included on Google Home has the potential to be especially damaging because they are divorced of context. In search results, these dodgy answers appear to be endorsed by Google but the user can at least click through to check out the website it came from.

When narrated by Google Home, on the other hand, it is presented authoritatively with only a brief “according to [website name]” before it is quoted verbatim.]

Reached for comment, a Google spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement that “Featured Snippets in Search provide an automatic and algorithmic match to a given search query, and the content comes from third-party sites. Unfortunately, there are instances when we feature a site with inappropriate or misleading content. When we are alerted to a Featured Snippet that violates our policies, we work quickly to remove them, which we have done in this instance. We apologise for any offence this may have caused.”

Finally, the┬ámost farcical example might be when you search for “Who is the king of the United States?” The answer it provides — Barack Obama — is actually pulled from an article on Search Engine Land that criticises Google for the inaccuracy of its featured answers.

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