Last week, Facebook faced criticism that the platform’s habit for surfacing fake news contributed to the election of Donald Trump — a claim Mark Zuckerberg denied. This week, Google faces a similar problem, as its search algorithm surfaces fake election results.
As Mediaite’s Dan Abrams first reported, when you search “final election numbers” or “final vote count 2016,” the first result in Google’s “in the news” box is from a scrappy-looking Wordpress blog called 70 News that appears to be run by one person. The article, posted on November 12th, features the headline “FINAL ELECTION 2016 NUMBERS: TRUMP WON BOTH POPULAR ( 62.9 M -62.2 M ) AND ELECTORAL COLLEGE VOTES ( 306-232)…HEY CHANGE.ORG, SCRAP YOUR LOONY PETITION NOW!”
The same story is also coming up if you use Google Assistant:
First, the numbers in this post are inaccurate. Though millions of votes have yet to be counted, but Clinton has already been shown to be leading the popular vote by a sizable margin. Current counts have her ahead by around 668,000 total votes, with some polling experts projecting Clinton will ultimately rack up a 2 million-vote lead. Second, the writer of the 70 News post claims that the source material for the article is “Twitter posts,” specifically, this tweet from a user named Michael:
Michael, on the other hand, is sourcing an article from the ultra-conservative tabloid USA Supreme, which argues that Clinton might win the number of votes “counted” but will not win the number of votes “cast” because of ignored Republican absentee ballots. (Michael also believes that Trump has been singled out by God to be president of the United States, a conspiracy theory popular with 4chan users who believe that Pepe the Frog is a reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian deity.)
And yet Michael — by way of 70 News, by way of Google — has become the sole source for a story squatting at the top of Google’s search results. 70 News has since updated its post with a single line admitting that CNN is showing different numbers — the headline and the body of the post remains the same.
This is not the first time misleading articles have appeared inside Google’s News box. In 2014, the search engine began pulling news from all over the internet, inside of just Google-approved publications. This is why popular Reddit posts also show up in Google News from time to time.
Add to all this the fact that Google’s own election result feature is a little misleading. It shows Clinton winning the popular vote, but the feature is so poorly designed that it looks like Trump has the lead:
Some combination of SEO, timing, and traffic seems to play a role in Google’s search algorithm, but the company has always been vague about what factors determine a story’s position in its results. “The goal of Search is to provide the most relevant and useful results for our users,” a Google spokesperson told The Verge. “In this case we clearly didn’t get it right, but we are continually working to improve our algorithms."
In most instances, the algorithm does surface legitimate sources — possibly because more people are reading legitimate news sources than fringe websites. But that doesn’t change the fact that Google is a massive platform — bigger than Facebook — and it presents its News box as a place for real news, and not fabricated conspiracy theories on a personal blog. People hunting for election results might find their way to 70 News, and despite the fact that the website looks like it was created by a man who types with two fingers, it would be hard to blame an incautious reader for assuming it was a factual publication. After all, one of its articles is currently living in the internet’s most coveted piece of real estate.
Update 3:47PM ET: Updated to add comment from Google.