SFU researchers find that Google algorithms assign innocuous job titles to prominent conspiracy theorists

“It’s very misleading to the public,” says Nicole Stewart, a communications teacher at SFU.

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According to researchers at Simon Fraser University, Google’s algorithms place innocuous job titles on prominent conspiracy theorists and terrorists, misleading the public.

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In one study published in M/C Journal this month, researchers with The Disinformation Project at SFU’s School of Communication examined Google’s automatically suggested captions for 37 known conspiracy theorists and found that, “in all cases, Google’s caption was never consistent with the conspiratorial behavior of the actor”.

Nicole Stewart, a communications teacher at SFU and a doctoral student working on the disinformation project, says she takes Gavin McInnes for example. McInnes founded the neo-fascist organization Proud Boys, which is considered a terrorist entity in Canada and a hate group in the United States.

On Google, he is listed as a “Canadian writer”.

“Often it’s not the right image to present. For example, if you start an organization as a terrorist entity in Canada, you probably shouldn’t be labeled as a writer anymore. If you’re responsible for a mass shooting, you probably shouldn’t be labeled as media anymore,” Stewart said in an interview Thursday.

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“It’s very misleading to the public. Yes, there is an element of truth, but is that the best, most accurate picture to present to these people? Absolutely not.”

Google has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Other examples include school denier Sandy Hook and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who is listed as an “American radio host” and Jerad Miller, a white nationalist responsible for a 2014 Las Vegas shooting, who is labeled as “American artist”.

Another is Brittany Pettibone, one of the main propagators of the Pizza Door Conspiracy. And his title is “author”.

Google screenshot provided by SFU.
Google screenshot provided by SFU.

Stewart said labels pose a threat by normalizing individuals who spread conspiracy theories, sow dissension and distrust of institutions, and cause harm to minority groups and vulnerable people.

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She hopes that their research will be taken into account by Google and that it will take steps to correct these titles created by the algorithms.

“We don’t know exactly what is going on in these algorithms, but what we do know is that there is a definite pattern, where people like mass murderers, terrorists, conspiracy theorists, are often labeled by their media titles,” Stewart said.

“I think it’s fundamental to our democracy that we look for ways to provide more factual information so that people don’t veer into right-wing extremism, that they don’t become entrenched in theories of conspiracy and that there is more than one level of truth on top of the information that we all receive.

Google screenshot provided by SFU.
Google screenshot provided by SFU.

The researchers found that the labels are neutral or positive, reflecting the person’s preferred description or job, but never negative.

“Users’ preferences and understanding of information can be manipulated based on their trust in Google search results, allowing these labels to gain widespread acceptance instead of providing a full picture of the damage caused by their ideologies and beliefs. “said Nathan Worku, a master’s student. on The Disinformation Project, in a statement released by SFU.

Led by Assistant Professor Ahmed Al-Rawi, the Disinformation Project is a federally funded research project that examines discourses of fake news in Canadian news and social media. Stewart said some of their work is funded by the Canadian Heritage Department.

The team has several other projects underway, including the creation of a handbook that maps far-right extremism in Canada.

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Sharon D. Cole