Who Googles Google? The Holocaust and Search Algorithms

Motivated users can manipulate search engine results

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Been going to Google for information about the Holocaust recently? You might have been presented with top results that include a white supremacist website.

As we posted previously, the idea that the internet is a neutral mass of information–and that search engines are neutral and unbiased–is one that increasingly needs to be challenged by students and readers of all ages.

Google results can serve as useful test cases to help students understand the inner workings behind what actually comes up in search results.

Fortune reports on the story in a short article appropriate for high school students.

The implications are alarming. Due to the search engine’s placement of the website, a young person unfamiliar with history, or a person seeking to validate a conspiracy theory, could easily get drawn into the Stormfront site as a jumping-off point for research.

The Guardian presents a more in-depth explanation of how Google’s autocomplete suggestions and ordering of search results can impact readers’ perceptions of an issue.

The increased scrutiny on the algorithms of Google – which removed antisemitic and sexist autocomplete phrases after the recent Observer investigation – comes at a time of tense debate surrounding the role of fake news in building support for conservative political leaders, particularly US president-elect Donald Trump.

Facebook has faced significant backlash for its role in enabling widespread dissemination of misinformation, and data scientists and communication experts have argued that rightwing groups have found creative ways to manipulate social media trends and search algorithms.

The Guardian’s latest findings further suggest that Google’s searches are contributing to the problem.

In the past, when a journalist or academic exposes one of these algorithmic hiccups, humans at Google quietly make manual adjustments in a process that’s neither transparent nor accountable.

At the same time, politically motivated third parties including the “alt-right”, a far-right movement in the US, use a variety of techniques to trick the algorithm and push propaganda and misinformation higher up Google’s search rankings.

 

Included in this post:

“How Google’s search algorithm spreads false information with a rightwing bias,” via The Guardian, 12/16/15

“A Top Google Result for the Holocaust Is Now a White Supremacist Site,” via Fortune, 12/12/16

Mountain View High’s Frank Navarro Back in the Classroom

The Mercury News is reporting a resolution to the suspension of Frank Navarro, a teacher at Mountain View High School in Mountain View, CA.

While Navarro is happy to be back in the classroom–and his students are happy to have him back–there’s some discrepancy about why he was removed in the first place.

As The Mercury News reports,

In a letter to parents sent Monday, [Principle] Harding stated that “freedom of expression and academic discourse are the cornerstones of our schools” and also said that “the teacher’s paid leave was not for teaching a lesson comparing Trump to Hitler.” The letter said the district received a complaint and needed to investigate “to ensure the emotional safety of all of our students.”

But Navarro said that last week Principal Dave Grissom and Associate Superintendent Eric Goddard said they were placing him on leave for discussing the election. Only on Monday, Navarro said, did Harding tell him the issue was “maintaining a safe environment for kids.”

“It’s really curious they didn’t discuss a safe environment on Thursday,” Navarro said, when he was ordered to remain off campus until Wednesday while the district conducted an investigation.

It seems clear that outside pressure had an impact. Harding seems taken aback at how quickly the story, and pushback, went global. We here are encouraged, especially given that coverage began with the school’s student newspaper.

“One Survivor Remembers”

The number one question I get is, “ What can I do?” In that question already lies the answer. Follow your instincts to do some- thing you believe in or care about. When you get to the end of your day or your life, you must answer to yourself, to be able to say, “If I saw something wrong, I spoke up.” When you make a decision based on instincts, you won’t regret things later.

–Gerda Weissman Klein

From the Southern Poverty Law Center, in partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is the middle school curriculum, “One Survivor Remembers.” The title’s survivor, Gerda Weissman Klein, was a prisoner for six years in a Nazi concentration camp.

The curriculum includes free online access to a 1995 documentary on Klein’s life, a contemporary interview with Klein, a detailed teacher’s guide, digital handouts and primary documents, and lesson plans.

Notably, these lesson plans include activities asking students to respond to both WWII-era and 21st century antisemitic political cartoons and propaganda. The prompts are easily transferrable to material gathered today.