If you Google image search “idiot” right now, you’ll find images of President Donald Trump. Online activists, in protest of Trump’s policies regarding unauthorized immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community, among others, are pushing his portraits to the top by manipulating the search engine’s ranking algorithm, as first reported by The Guardian earlier this week.
The association between Trump and the word “idiot” was partly sparked by London protesters’ choice of the Green Day song “American Idiot” during the president’s English visit. But Redditors have also jumped on the bandwagon and upvoted posts of Trump with the word “idiot,” which encouraged Google’s search algorithms to associate the two together.
Google doesn’t interfere with its search results much, and it has in the past openly talked about its lack of direct oversight. That can lead to highly controversial images remaining online, to the chagrin of groups and minorities. In 2004, when anti-Semitic imagery appeared for the search term “jew,” Google did not remove the images but instead displayed ads beside it, explaining how its search results were calculated. A site’s ranking depends on “thousands of factors,” Google explained in a public post that is now taken down (but has been preserved by books and articles), meaning that sometimes “subtleties of language cause anomalies to appear that cannot be predicted.”
A book called Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble that was published in January details how the author uncovered tons of pornographic and racist imagery depicting black people when trying to search the term “black girls” for helpful articles and advice for her nieces. Noble writes, “There is a missing social and human context in some types of algorithmically driven decision making, and this matters for everyone engaging with these types of technologies in everyday life.” In 2009, search results for former first lady Michelle Obama brought up an image altered to have ape-like features. Google’s response was to place advertising alongside the results that clarified that the company did not support the images, but that it also would not interfere with the results directly.
The company still hasn’t addressed the issue of offensive search results, and with the recent discovery that activists can still game the system, it appears that Google search remains vulnerable to practices like mass upvoting on Reddit and other forms of non-organic promotion. If Google isn’t going to do anything about search results, it might be comforting to note that a group of determined individuals can do something instead. The results don’t seem to last very long, and writing about it in articles like this one only serve to reinforce the association for a little bit longer.