Google Forced To Explain Why Searches For 'Idiot' Result In Trump
In July this year, Google users -- so pretty much all of us -- noticed an unusual occurrence: searching for 'idiot' in Google Images resulted in pictures of Donald Trump.
Fast-forward six months, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai was forced to explain the phenomenon to U.S. Congress, providing a rare insight into Google's search algorithms as well as shifting responsibility for the result.
"Right now, if you Google the word 'idiot' under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. I just did that," said Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren.
"How would that happen? How does search work so that would occur?"
Pichai offered a general summary of how Google's search results work, explaining that it's based on keywords and relevance of the billions of websites Google has crawled.
"We take the keywords and match it against their pages and rank them based on over 200 signals -- things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it," he said.
"And based on that, at any given time, we try to rank and find the best search results for that query. And then we evaluate them with external raters, and they evaluate it to objective guidelines. And that's how we make sure the process is working."
"So it's not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we're going to show the user?" Lofgren asked.
"We don't manually intervene on any particular search result," Pichai replied.
Republican Lamar Smith -- who claimed to have "irrefutable" evidence that Google suppressed conservative search results -- asked if Pichai had ever directed an employee to manipulate search results.
Pichai replied that such a step was not even possible.
"Let me just say, I disagree," Smith responded.
"I think humans can manipulate the process. It is a human process at its base."
Another Republican, Steve Chabot, insisted that Google was picking "winners and losers in political discourse", complaining that when he Googled the Republican health care bill or tax cuts, the first several pages listed negative articles.
“Congressman, I understand the frustration of seeing negative news, and, you know, I see it on me,” Pichai replied.
“What is important here is we use the robust methodology to reflect what is being said about any given topic at any particular time. And we try to do it objectively, using a set of rubrics. It is in our interest to make sure we reflect what’s happening out there in the best objective manner possible.
"I can commit to you, and I can assure you, we do it without regards to political ideology. Our algorithms have no notion of political sentiment in it.”
It's not the first time Google has been forced to explain its search results. In 2009, it took the drastic step of using a prominent Google ad to explain why searching for 'Michelle Obama' produced racist images.
"Sometimes our search results can be offensive," the ad said.
Clicking on the ad took users to a now-defunct page, which explained that "sometimes Google search results from the Internet can include disturbing content, even from innocuous enquiries. We assure you that the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google."
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Lead photo: Getty