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Google tweaks algorithm to thwart Holocaust denial

Internet giant says balancing free speech with the need to provide credible information provides an ongoing challenge

Google headquarters in New York City (Serge Attal/FLASH90)
Google headquarters in New York City (Serge Attal/FLASH90)

Google has changed its search algorithm to deny prominence to Holocaust denying websites, Digital Trends reported this week.

The company faced criticism after DT reported that searching for the query “Did the Holocaust happen?” gave top results from white supremacist and anti-Semitic pages, which asserted that it, in fact, did not.

One such result was for the website, considered a major racist hub.

While Google initially said it had no intention of removing or filtering search results, the company has since announced that it has “made improvements to our algorithm that will help surface more high quality, credible content on the web.”

While a spokesperson noted that the internet giant strives “to give users a breadth of diverse content” and was “committed to the principle of a free and open web,” hate speech presented a challenge and “we don’t always get it right.”

Google founder Sergey Brin (CC-BY-Steve Jurvetson, Wikimedia Commons)
Google founder Sergey Brin (CC-BY-Steve Jurvetson, Wikimedia Commons)

Google said it would continue to tweak its algorithms “to tackle these challenges.”

Earlier this month, Google removed some offensive search suggestions, including the phrase “are Jews evil,” which had been automatically generated by its search algorithm.

The phrase has previously been one of those offered to users who typed in the words “are Jews,” The Guardian reported.

Google also removed suggestions for other offensive search phrases pertaining to women that were brought up in a Guardian article.

“We took action within hours of being notified…of the autocomplete results,” a Google spokesperson told The Guardian.

“Our search results are a reflection of the content across the web. This means that sometimes unpleasant portrayals of sensitive subject matter online can affect what search results appear for a given query. These results don’t reflect Google’s own opinions or beliefs — as a company, we strongly value a diversity of perspectives, ideas and cultures.

The spokesperson said the autocomplete predictions are generated algorithmically based on the search activity and interests of users.

“Users search for such a wide range of material on the web — 15% of searches we see every day are new. Because of this, terms that appear in autocomplete may be unexpected or unpleasant. We do our best to prevent offensive terms, like porn and hate speech, from appearing, but we acknowledge that autocomplete isn’t an exact science and we’re always working to improve our algorithms,” the spokesperson said.

Google took similar action last year when it removed anti-Semitic responses to the search phrase “Who runs Hollywood?”

JTA contributed to this report.

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