Oops! Google caught spreading fake news over the weekend

Is Barack Obama planning a coup? The answer, according to Google this weekend, could have been yes.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
2 min read
Watch this: Google Home spouts crazy talk with fake news in answers

Don't believe everything you read on the internet.

Google acknowledged Monday reports that it inadvertently allowed false information to spread over the weekend.

"Unfortunately, there are instances when we feature a site with inappropriate or misleading content," a Google spokeswoman said in a statement.

On Sunday, chatter about the tech giant spreading inaccurate information and conspiracy theories through a search function called "Featured Snippets" bubbled up on social media, highlighting reports from TheOutline.com and Searchengineland.

You may have seen the Featured Snippets displayed in a box at the top of Google search results or heard them parroted by your Google Home device when you input a query.

Over the weekend, Featured Snippets was giving a rather funky answer to the question: "Is Obama planning a coup?" The Obama is, of course, former President Barack Obama.

"According to details exposed in Western Centre for Journalism's exclusive video, not only could Obama be in bed with the communist Chinese, but Obama may in fact be planning a communist coup d'état at the end of his term in 2016," Google would reply.

The spread of false information -- aka fake news -- has been attracting attention recently though it's a problem as old as the internet itself. Still, it was the 2016 US presidential campaign that transformed "fake news" into a hot-button topic, with claims that fake news reports influenced the outcome of the election. Since the election, President Donald Trump has used the phrase in attacks on mainstream media.

At the center of the storm last year was Facebook, a network where people can easily share fake news. The company has since promised to crack down on the problem.

But it's not just Facebook. In this specific instance, Google fixed the problem as soon as it was alerted to the result. But people are actively trying to find other examples. If you do happen across what you believe to be a Featured Snippet containing false information, you can click on the feedback link directly underneath to flag the problem to Google.

Spreading false information is not Google's intention. The company has been trying to crack down on it. Last month, Google teamed up with Facebook to combat the problem in France and Germany, both of which face upcoming elections.

So what went wrong over the weekend? According to Google, the Featured Snippets search function relies on algorithms to automatically provide a match to a search query, pulling in text from third-party sites. Most of the time this provides people with a helpful summary or answer to their question. But the algorithm doesn't always discriminate between reputable and disreputable sources.

"When we are alerted to a Featured Snippet that violates our policies, we work quickly to remove them, which we have done in this instance," Google said. "We apologize for any offense this may have caused."

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