Google asks its employees to “Do the right thing.” At least, that’s what its revised 2015 motto states in an upgrade from the original company maxim, “Don’t be evil.”
But when a user searches Google for information on Islam, the results often link to propaganda, anti-Muslim hate and outright lies. The algorithm for the world’s largest search engine is definitely not doing the right thing ― especially when it comes to the first page of results, where most users stop their searches.
Basic searches for words like “Muslim” and “Islam” return reasonable results with links to reputable sites. But more specific terms, like “sharia,” “jihad” or “taqiyya” ― often co-opted by white supremacists ― return links to Islamophobic sites filled with misinformation.
The same thing happens with the autofill function. If a user types in “does islam,” the first suggestion that pops up to complete the query is “does islam permit terrorism.” Another egregious example occurs when a user inputs “do muslim.” The autofill results include “do muslim women need saving.”
There are endless possibilities for misinformation, and the consequences are disturbing.
“Ninety percent of people don’t make it past the first page,” Heidi Beirich, a project director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told HuffPost. “It’s miseducating millions, if not billions of people on many subjects.”
Indeed, there is a distinct correlation between anti-Muslim searches and anti-Muslim hate crimes, according to researchers.
The result? At the extreme end of the spectrum, white supremacists commit heinous acts of violence, like in Portland, Oregon and Tulsa, Oklahoma. But more commonly and perhaps more nefariously, such searches normalize a culture of fear, leading to the harassment of hijab-wearing teenagers and 7-Eleven store clerks.
But Omar Suleiman, a Muslim American imam from Dallas and founder of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, has a plan to take on Google.
Suleiman and his team have been publishing reports on controversial topics in Islam ― like jihad ― in the hopes of influencing the search algorithm. His goal is to flood the search results with accurate information on Islam.
Suleiman, 30, realized a few years ago that there was a dire need for factual information during the rise of the self-described Islamic State, when he noticed how right-wing groups were equating ISIS’s language with the beliefs of the world’s entire Muslim population.
One of Suleiman’s most popular reports is on the Islamic idea of taqiyya, a term Islamophobes and white supremacists have appropriated and exploited to accuse Muslims of lying to non-Muslims for a sinister objective like taking over the world.
Suleiman explains in the report that taqiyya is actually a centuries-old concept that permits a Muslim to conceal his or her faith when under the threat of persecution. What was once more commonly applied by the minority Shia sect of Islam in the face of persecution, taqiyya is rarely, if ever, applicable to modern-day American Muslims, regardless of sect.
Because it is an Arabic word, Islamophobes use the word “taqiyya” solely to instill fear, Suleiman told HuffPost. It’s a foreign-sounding word from a religion that’s perceived as foreign, and it sends “chills down the spines of well-meaning but woefully misinformed patriotic Americans wary of those turban-wearing bearded foreigners, right? What could possibly go wrong?” Suleiman wrote in the report.
The Yaqeen Institute has also published reports on honor killings, stoning and jihad, all topics Islamophobes constantly twist to degrade Islam and Muslims.
But taking on the internet is not easy, and may not even be possible.
Suleiman’s report on taqiyya doesn’t come up until the second page of Google search. The first link that appears on the first page, an article from meforum.org, may appear legitimate, but the Middle East Forum is actually an Islamophobic “think tank” and website that “promotes American interests in the Middle East and protects Western values from Middle Eastern threats.” TheReligionOfPeace.com and Billionbibles.org are other anti-Muslim websites whose articles appear on the first page.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a similar ― and arguably worse ― problem when users search for the term “sharia.”
Factual content about Islam “in basic searches often gets choked off by anti-Muslim propaganda,” writes Alex Amend, digital media director at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
However, there is precedent for Google to make a change. The company removed the “are Jews evil” autofill suggestion late last year, and apologized for mistakenly tagging African-Americans as “gorillas” in the search feature of the Google photos app.
“We’re appalled and genuinely sorry that this happened,” a company spokeswoman said at the time. “There is still clearly a lot of work to do with automatic image labeling, and we’re looking at how we can prevent these types of mistakes from happening in the future.”
Earlier this year, YouTube, which is owned by Google, announced a new set of policies that target offensive content that doesn’t necessarily violate the company’s guidelines. The policy includes burying the videos and not attaching them to any advertising. Videos that promote the subjugation of religions or races without outright inciting violence, such as by targeting Islam, would be covered by this policy.
Google announced in a blog post in April, that they were going to “surface more high-quality content from the web,” and offer users the opportunity to report inappropriate content. But with tens of thousands of pages “coming online every minute of every day,” the post read, clearly they are facing an uphill battle.
Beirich says Google’s actions so far are not enough.
“Google’s algorithm is seriously flawed and it’s a scary thing, because millions of people around the world are using it,” she said. “It’s a fundamental problem with how search works.”
“We are teaching [people] reasons to hate black people, Jews, Muslims and [other] minorities.”
Beirich points to the case of white supremacist Dylann Roof, who went “from being someone who was not raised in a racist home to someone so steeped in white supremacist propaganda that he murdered nine African-Americans during a Bible study.”
“We are teaching [people] reasons to hate black people, Jews, Muslims and [other] minorities,” Beirich said.
The SPLC has brought its concerns to Google, but says it has yet to see substantial action.
A Google spokeswoman told HuffPost she had “nothing to add” when asked about the harmful search results.
Despite the odds stacked against Suleiman, he is hopeful. He is also aware that Yaqeen has nothing close to the $57 million network fueling Islamophobia, both online and offline, in the United States.
“The prize of Islamophobes is the hearts and minds of people,” Suleiman said. “What we need to continue to do is to discredit these people and their agendas.”
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This story has been updated to include information about how to report inappropriate content to Google.