Over the weekend, I wrote about how Google’s desire to give direct answers to search queries has led to a slew of embarrassingly wrong answers — including a question about whether Barack Obama is planning a coup, which has since been corrected.
These answers appear in a box at the top of search results, and they will be read aloud if the searcher is using a Google Home or Google Assistant voice application.
Ask Google what a “tall white” is, and it will helpfully tell you that they are a subspecies of Grey Aliens — a popular conspiracy theory trope that, according to UFOlogists, originated with one couple’s claim of being abducted in 1961. Ask it who the king of the United States is, and it will tell you Barack Obama. Ask it what iodine smells like, and it will respond with an explanation sourced from the user-generated question and answer website Quora: “When I made meth, I used hydrogen peroxide and hydrochloric acid to precipitate the iodine out of 7% strong iodine tincture. This process had to be done in a chicken coop because the smell would be noticed if it was in a home or garage. This is a smell that seeps into walls and clothe [sic] and will never come out.”
There was one particularly egregious example of an erroneous featured snippet, however, that a reader brought to my attention. It illustrates how the featured snippet mechanism can be hoodwinked by the search engine optimization of falsehoods.
V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, a scientist, entrepreneur, and estranged husband of Fran Drescher, claims to have invented email in the 1970s. While Ayyadurai holds a copyright for a program called “EMAIL” that he wrote as a teenager, email had already been invented by Ray Tomlinson, a developer who worked on the internet predecessor ARPANET and coined the modern use of the @ sign.
Techdirt and Gizmodo both published thorough debunkings of Ayyadurai’s claim. Gizmodo reported that Ayyadurai is so dedicated to crowning himself the inventor of email that he has registered more than 100 domains related to the claim. (He also secured a trademark on the phrase “Dr. Email.”)
Keeping this context in mind, here’s what a search for “who invented email” turns up on Google.
It’s Shiva Ayyadurai. The source is Shiva Ayyadurai’s website. The snippet isn’t even in full sentences because it’s so stuffed with keywords.
The issue with this particular featured snippet is bigger than one wrong answer. It’s that Google got roped into a disinformation campaign waged by Ayyadurai.
In May 2016, Ayyadurai sued Gawker Media, parent company of Gizmodo. Faced with a slew of simultaneous lawsuits — at least two of which were bankrolled by a vindictive billionaire — Gawker was forced to settle in November and pay Ayyadurai $750,000. It also removed the Gizmodo story refuting Ayyudurai’s claim to email from the web (although it’s preserved by the Internet Archive). Ayyadurai was represented by Charles Harder, the same lawyer whom Peter Thiel paid to represent Hulk Hogan in a $100 million suit against Gawker that bankrupted the company, and is now the go-to attorney for high-profile defamation claims against media outlets.
Ayyadurai and Harder also filed a $15 million lawsuit against Techdirt in January, which could bury the 20-year-old independent news site. “This is not a fight about who invented email,” the site’s founder, Mike Masnick, wrote. “This is a fight about whether or not our legal system will silence independent publications for publishing opinions that public figures do not like. And here's the thing: this fight could very well be the end of Techdirt, even if we are completely on the right side of the law.”
“Users don’t want to be misled by the content they engage with online,” reads the “prohibited content” section of Google’s ad network policy. It’s the reason Google kicked 200 publishers off its advertising platform in January. That same standard doesn’t seem to apply to the search engine’s featured snippets, however. In Ayyadurai’s case, the machine of propaganda could not have worked more perfectly to spread lies. Remove factual reporting from the web through litigation. Flood the web with search engine-optimized pages you control. Then wait until Google, ranked the second most reputable company in the world by a Nielson-owned reputation firm, names your falsehood its canonical answer.
In Ayyadurai’s case, the machine of propaganda could not have worked more perfectly to spread lies.
For most of its history, Google has been a research tool: Ask a question, and you get a list of sources with possible answers. In recent years, likely due to the proliferation of voice-activated devices, Google has been exploring ways to give users direct answers to their queries. Featured snippets, which are sourced from the web, are a way for Google to distinguish itself from competitors like Siri and Amazon Echo. Google says 20 percent of queries from mobile devices are already done by voice.
Google allows users to report bad answers, automatically correcting featured snippets according to feedback. Sometimes, it manually intervenes after bad press. However, bad information may stay up for days, weeks, or indefinitely. Google shows the website that these answers come from and offers a link that users can click through to get more information on how featured snippets work — but it still emphasizes direct answers over traditional search results by visually setting them aside at the top of the page and reading them out loud when searches are done on Google Home and through its voice-activated Google Assistant. Even when they are offensive, misleading, or just plain wrong.
Google did not respond to a request for comment.