A Google search feature meant to save time and provide quick information on prominent people, places and things tends to mislabel terrorists, white nationalists and mass murderers by automatically generating bizarre snapshot biographies of them.
David Duke, for instance, is primarily known for being a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan and a raging white supremacist ― not a “former [Louisiana] representative,” as Google lists him. When people look up Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter who killed 58 people in one of the worst mass shootings in modern U.S. history, it’s probably not because he was an “American real estate investor.”
The feature is called a Knowledge Panel, and it’s what shows up as a box in the top right corner of your search page when you Google someone or something that’s famous enough. They work fairly well most of the time, featuring brief descriptions usually taken from Wikipedia on subjects ranging from the Queen of England to grilled cheese sandwiches.
But when it comes to more controversial or infamous people, the Knowledge Panels begin to break down and choose misleading or simply strange titles. Since robots essentially write them, they miss what makes certain people notable.
“Knowledge Panels … reflect information from sources and databases across the web (including Wikidata, Wikipedia’s knowledge base), so there may be inconsistencies in how individuals are described or how information is structured in those sources,” a Google spokesperson told HuffPost.
The panels function similar to Google features that show short blocks of text for common searches like “how to cook a turkey,” keeping users on Google’s page rather than having them click through to another site. But because they are automatically generated, there appears to be a lack of quality control.
The descriptions are often inconsistent, at times labeling people who might fall under the same category in wildly different ways. The Aurora movie theater gunman James Holmes is named as a “mass murderer,” while white supremacist killer Dylann Roof has no title under his name.
The knowledge panels run into trouble with extremists who have any semblance of a legitimate profession, even if it’s being a propagandist for hateful ideologies. White nationalist Greg Johnson — who runs an openly bigoted publishing house for pseudo-intellectual racist screeds, writes books such as “The White Nationalist Manifesto,” and was recently arrested in Norway for his extremism — is listed as “American writer.” White nationalist Richard Spencer, meanwhile, is an “American publisher.”
Prominent white supremacists and far-right media influencers are also commonly vaguely labeled as “writer” or “commentator.” Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is listed as an “American radio host,” which is technically accurate but chooses to focus on the medium over the message.
The issue extends to violent extremists as well, where Google’s panels seem to exclude ideology or crimes in favor of featuring their unrelated job. Far-right extremist Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinians in a mosque in Hebron, has the title of “American-Israeli physician.”
Google’s official name for the one-line descriptions is a “subtitle,” and the company does have a process for receiving feedback about inaccuracies, although it’s vulnerable to the same problems of automation. If Google’s systems get enough negative feedback about a subtitle, it gets removed and replaced by a new automatically generated subtitle. But Google can’t write custom subtitles; it’s at the mercy of its own automated systems.
Meanwhile, many of Google’s Knowledge Panels simply have no title for prominent people at all and instead only have the more accurate and descriptive blurbs of text below the title. Islamist terrorists often lack labels, including al Qaeda leaders Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. Former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is an exception, and gets the confusing label “military commander.”
Cults are another weak spot, with Jim Jones named simply as a “religious leader” as opposed to something that might directly indicate that e organized the mass murder and suicide of more than 900 people. Shoko Asahara — who commanded followers to launch a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 — gets the title of “founder,” as if his apocalyptic doomsday cult was a successful tech start-up.
Google’s algorithm tends to do better with infamous politicians, especially heads of state: Syrian dictator Bashar Assad isn’t listed as an ophthalmologist and Adolf Hitler isn’t an aspiring artist. But the preference towards political office also creates problems for people better known for things, like labeling Duke a former Louisiana state representative as opposed to the former head of the KKK. (“Predator” star and former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura is still somehow just an “American actor.”)
Google’s questionable descriptions don’t appear specific to any region: Former Liberian warlord Joshua Milton Blahyi is a “Liberian priest” because he became a preacher after admitting responsibility for over 20,000 deaths. They also defy any historical period — John Wilkes Booth may have assassinated Abraham Lincoln, but to Google he remains an “American actor” at heart.