Google’s reliance on Wikipedia makes it vulnerable to search pranks

Once again, Google is in trouble with conservative critics because of its perceived anti-Republican bias. The company’s Knowledge Panel for the California Republican party briefly showed that the party’s ideology included “Nazism.”

Here’s an image of the Knowledge Panel originally grabbed by Vice News:

Google clarified that this was a problem with someone pranking Wikipedia, which is often the source for Google’s Knowledge Panel content and Featured Snippets. Change logs for the California Republican party page on Wikipedia revealed the problem.

Were it not for the “fake news” and 2016 Russian meddling crises, this would simply be another short-lived SERP scandal, of which there have been many in the past. However, in the new context of content manipulation to sway public opinion, it takes on greater seriousness and seems to underscore the ongoing problem of editorial oversight.

Both Facebook and Google have announced various measures aimed at catching “fake news” or false and inflammatory information in their feeds or search results. However, reliance on user-generated platforms or crowdsourcing is problematic.

In the past, these “wisdom of the crowds” systems were supposed to catch incorrect information and prevent its widespread dissemination. However, 2016 proved that crowds often aren’t as wise as assumed. According to AP, the original “Nazism” entry was made anonymously on May 24 and fixed a week later. Yesterday, the entry was added again and immediately caught.

It’s ironic that the coverage has probably given the controversy far more exposure than it would have had otherwise. Eventually, the error would have been caught and fixed. However, it raises the question of Google’s reliance on Wikipedia, which can be easily manipulated to impact what people see in search results.

Google, YouTube, Facebook and others in the US are generally not liable for content on their platforms. However, the European Commission seeks to reverse that policy and impose liability for “illegal” content if it is not taken down immediately, or even proactively.

About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog, Screenwerk, about connecting the dots between digital media and real-world consumer behavior. He is also VP of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association. Follow him on Twitter or find him at Google+.

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