I read about this at Nicholas Carr’s site: The top hit for “Martin Luther King” on Google is to a white supremacist site, martinlutherking.org, that is billed as “the truth about Martin Luther King.” It’s cleverly designed to look – at first glance – like a bona fide informational site, and recommends itself to teachers and students, but a closer look shows it’s anything but neutral – it’s a racist rewriting of history. AOL gets their search results from Google and requested Google remove the site from the results shown to AOL customers, as AOL didn’t want to support a racist site. Google refused, reiterating their strange litany about the sanctity of their algorithm, and how their results must remain untampered with by human hands.

I’ve written about Google’s strange idea of objectivity before. I realise that once you start messing with some results you might get into trouble – but the idea that an algorithm (programmed by humans…) is objective is ludicrous.

Checking who linked to the site I see that large numbers of the links are from libraries and educational sites explaining how to evaluate the validity of information online. And yes, martinlutherking.org is a textbook example. However, all those links from sites that clearly do not condone the site have been interpreted by Google as recommendations. Hooray.

I’m taking the time, today, to write to as many of the non-racist sites that link to martinlutherking.org as I can and ask them to please remove the links. If more people are aware that linking means condoning – according to Google’s infallible algorithm – perhaps the misinformation site will drop in rankings to where it belongs.

(Related: David Weinberger pointed out a similar issue that comes up if you search for “jew” on Google – the top results used to be anti-semittic sites. Google put up a “sponsored link” (thus top of the hits) explaining that they’re disturbed about this too and explaining their position and how to find correct information.)

5 thoughts on “librarians linking to example of disinformation make white supremacist site #1 on google for “Martin Luther King”

  1. Peter Weiland

    hi Jill,

    Google’s statement that the search results are always objective is simply not true. Google is filtering search results – the most popular example is google.cn but Google excludes also sites from the search results in the localised versions for France and Germany (see http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/filtering/google/).

    Peter

  2. […] From jill/txt: I read about this at Nicholas Carr’s site: The top hit for “Martin Luther King” on Google is to a white supremacist site, martinlutherking.org, that is billed as “the truth about Martin Luther King.” It’s cleverly designed to look – at first glance – like a bona fide informational site, and recommends itself to teachers and students, but a closer look shows it’s anything but neutral – it’s a racist rewriting of history. AOL gets their search results from Google and requested Google remove the site from the results shown to AOL customers, as AOL didn’t want to support a racist site. Google refused, reiterating their strange litany about the sanctity of their algorithm, and how their results must remain untampered with by human hands. […]

  3. Mark Federman

    Those who are upset about this are perhaps missing a subtle distinction between the syntax and sematics of Google: Google syntactically is an aggregate ranking of links (expressed simplistically); semantically, it is taken as a proxy for authority – a citation source version of the tyranny of the majority. It can be said that the algorithm is as objective as an algorithm can be (given that the algorithm is originally generated by subjective humans). The results, however, are very subjective, given that linking is both a subjective and, as some like danah boyd might argue, a political act.

    Although I agree that it is deplorable that hate sites proliferate among the collaborative environment of the Internet, Google’s algorithm is also having the effect of shining a bright light on the hatred and bigotry of groups like Stormfront. Additionally, it is prompting scholarly examination of how how knowledge and knowledge authority are constructed in a post-Gutenberg world. That many assume Google equals authority is thinking that should now be critically queried, as it stems from an obsolesced knowledge environment.

  4. Michael Faris

    Thanks for commenting on my site, Jill. In case you don’t return to that post, I replied:

    You’re right, it’s not pulling the card from the catalogue. A better analogy would be “There are 1 million cards for this book, and only 80 for this book. Why don’t we re-proporition them.”

    I agree with your intent, Jill: I don’t want a 10-year-old’s first encounter with MLK to be that site either. Which is why I’m a bit ambivalent about it. On the one had, I want to say let the google algorithms work the way they do (mysterious as they are); on the other hand, I want to say let’s manipulate them (like googling “rick santorum” and finding a new definition for his name instead of the senator’s webpage).

    I didn’t realize you could do a nofollow attribute (in fact, I had to google it to know exactly what it was: from searchenginewatch). That’s pretty cool news, and I readily support you contacting people to change links if they are using nofollow.

  5. Norman Hanscombe

    Some time back there was an organised campaign [beyond my I.T. comprehension] which resulted in the George W. Bush site coming up if you googled a particular word and hit the “I’m Feeling Lucky” tab. I’ve forgotten the word now, but it was something equivalent to “stupidity” or “foolish”. Apparently Google insisted nothing could be done then either, so I assume they’ve been even-handed about the problem?

    Frankly, I continue to consider the biggest problem is the difficulty of getting students [and staff sometimes?]to adopt more critical approaches to what’s available. Currently use of the internet can sometimes seem analogous to providing an absolutely anything goes smogasboard lunch option in the school canteen.

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