Google’s Knowledge Panels Are Magnifying Disinformation

That box is what Google calls a “knowledge panel,” a collection of definitive-seeming information (dates, names, biographical details, net worths) that appears when you Google someone or something famous. Seven years after their introduction, in 2012, knowledge panels are essential internet infrastructure: 62 percent of mobile searches in June 2019 were no-click, according to the research firm Jumpshot, meaning that many people are in the habit of searching; looking at the knowledge panel, related featured snippets, or top links; and then exiting the search. A 2019 survey conducted by the search marketing agency Path Interactive found that people ages 13 to 21 were twice as likely as respondents over 50 to consider their search complete once they’d viewed a knowledge panel.

This is all part of an effort to “build the next generation of search, which taps into the collective intelligence of the web and understands the world a bit more like people do,” as Amit Singhal, then the senior vice president in charge of search at Google, wrote in a 2012 blog post.

But people do not populate knowledge panels. Algorithms do. Google’s algorithms, like any, are imperfect, subject to errors and misfires. At their best, knowledge panels make life easier. But at their worst, the algorithms that populate knowledge panels can pull bad content, spreading misinformation.

These errors, while hurtful, are mostly incidental: As recently as June 2019, women scientists were left out of the CRISPR knowledge panel. The wrong Malcom Glenn’s photo appeared above his knowledge panel. Photos of CNN’s Melissa Bell appear in the knowledge panel for Vox’s Melissa Bell. And, of course, Martin John Bryant the killer is the more (in)famous Martin John Bryant; it’s unfortunate, but not wholly wrong, for him to have ownership over the knowledge panel.

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But in 2019, when every square inch of the internet is contested terrain, Google results have become an unlikely site for the spread of misinformation: Some knowledge panels, and related featured snippets, cite information posted in bad faith, and in so doing, magnify false and hateful rhetoric.

In 2018, after The Atlantic identified and reported to Google that the knowledge panel for Emmanuel Macron included the anti-Semitic nickname “candidate of Rothschild,” the search giant removed the phrase. (A Google spokesperson told The Atlantic at the time that knowledge panels occasionally contain incorrect information, and that in those cases the company works quickly to correct them.) That same year, the knowledge panel about the California Republican Party briefly listed a party ideology as “Nazism,” as first reported by Vice; a verified Google Twitter account tweeted later that this error had occurred because someone had updated the Wikipedia page about the Republican Party, and that “both Wikipedia & Google have systems that routinely catch such vandalism, but these didn’t work in this case.”

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