Google wants to solve the misinformation problem of its search engine
In 2014, if you were on Google “King of the United States“, you would have seen a photo of Barack Obama, shouting passionately into a microphone while on a podium.
That’s not true, of course. But Google proclaimed it with authority after publishing an article by Breitbart titled “All Hail King Barack Obama, Emperor Of The United States of America!”
The episode highlights just how clumsy Google can be with snippets, search results that the company elevates to the top of the page as the definitive answer to a query. The problem has persisted over the years, with Google making it clear that some presidents were in the KKKwhere women are mean.
Google on Thursday unveiled a handful of new features aimed at combating such lies on its search engine, one of the most widely used information tools on the planet. Far from its origins as a simple website that listed 10 links as search results, Google is now a sprawling, cluttered site that highlights news, tweets, maps, hotel reservations, and more. As the site has grown – and disinformation peddlers have become more sophisticated – the search engine has become more vulnerable to spreading lies and misinformation.
“In recent years, the growth of misinformation has become even more of a pressing challenge for us as a society,” Pandu Nayak, vice president of research at Google, told reporters on Wednesday. “We can only fulfill our mission if we can deliver high quality results.”
Google said it would use its artificial intelligence systems to improve search snippets. The company will use machine learning software, called MUM, or Multitask Unified Model, to verify information from multiple trusted sources that agree on the same facts. The process will allow the system to come to a general consensus, Google said, even if the sources don’t phrase the information the same way.
The company is also expanding its “About This Result” feature, which originally released last year, to include more context about search results. In addition to seeing a brief description of the website or business and when the result was indexed, users will now also see more detailed information about the result. For example, it will tell you if a business is owned by another entity. On the other hand, if Google can’t find much information about a result, it will disclose that as well. The company is also launching “About This Result” in other languages, including Spanish, German and Indonesian.
Google also updates its “Content Advisories,” which it typically displays during current events, such as a mass shooting or natural disaster, when the situation is changing rapidly and little information is available. Now, in addition to notifying people when information is scarce, it will also notify people when information is available but may not be reliable, based on Google’s ranking system for search results.
The new features underscore the ongoing and growing battle tech giants are waging against disinformation providers. The problem will only get worse when the United States looks to midterm elections later this year. Google, along with Facebook and Twitter, have been criticized for years for exploiting their platforms regarding conspiracy theories, Covid-19 news and extremism.
However, none of the updates apply to YouTube, which is also owned by Google and has long been a major contributor to the spread of misinformation. “Their problem is a little different from ours when it comes to search,” Nayak said, noting that YouTube hosts content and uses a custom feed, though he said the two teams are brainstorming ideas. “We don’t work on YouTube directly, and YouTube doesn’t work on us directly.”
Update: This story has been updated to clarify the Google team’s collaboration with YouTube.