Google Started a Political Shitstorm Because of Its Over-Reliance on Wikipedia

The feature that caused Google to say the ideology of the California Republican Party is "Nazism" is killing Wikipedia.

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May 31 2018, 8:36pm

Image: Shutterstock

Google’s reliance on Wikipedia has resulted in an instant disaster for the search giant. Take a look:

As VICE News reported earlier Thursday, a Google search for “California Republican Party” resulted in Google listing “Nazism” as the “ideology” of the party. This happened because of Google’s “Featured Snippets” tool, which pulls basic information for search terms and puts it on the front page. These are also sometimes called “Google Cards” and “knowledge panels.”

The information on these cards is often taken from Wikipedia entries, which is what seems to have happened here. Six days ago, someone edited the Wikipedia page for “California Republican Party” to include “Nazism,” something that wasn’t changed until Wednesday, Wikipedia’s edit logs show. Google’s artificial intelligence pulled that data, displayed it under search, and now Republicans have more ammo in their ongoing Google-is-biased crusade.

It’s worth mentioning that, in the past, these same knowledge panels have falsely shown that various presidents were KKK members, that MSG causes brain damage, and that Barack Obama is “King” of the United States and was “planning a coup,” as the Outline reported. In March, 2017, Google had the exact same problem—Google Home said “Republicans = Nazis” when asked if they were fascists.

Google said in a statement that "we regret that vandalism on Wikipedia briefly appeared on our search results. This was not the result of a manual change by Google. We have systems in place that catch vandalism before it impacts search results, but occasionally errors get through, and that happened here."

So, this isn’t evidence of bias. But it is evidence of the limitations of Google’s algorithms, and, more importantly, how Silicon Valley continues to get rich off its cynical, damaging, and unfair over-reliance on Wikipedia’s volunteer editors.

Google’s featured snippets are not only often incorrect, but they are actively harming the health of Wikipedia. Because many Google searches are simply fact-finding missions, Google’s featured snippets result in largely reduced clickthrough on those searches. As anyone who has ever cheated at bar trivia would know (NOT ME), if you’re wondering who won the World Series in 1996 (the Yankees) or the age of Tom Cruise (55), the featured snippets replace a visit you’d otherwise give to Wikipedia.

From a user standpoint, this is often a nice experience because you can find the information faster. But from Wikipedia’s point-of-view, it’s a potential existential crisis. Every Wikipedian I’ve spoken to in the last few years has brought up the negative impact that Google’s featured snippets has had on the site—fewer clicks means fewer people getting caught in Wikipedia’s web of intrigue, which means fewer donations to run the site and, ultimately, fewer editors to keep the site healthy.

A study published last year by researchers at the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University found an “extensive interdependence between Wikipedia and Google.”

The study, which removed and re-added Wikipedia content from Google and examined how users interacted with Google, found that Google “becomes a worse search engine” without Wikipedia (user clickthrough rates dropped significantly), and also demonstrated “Google’s critical role in providing readership to Wikipedia” because of those clickthroughs.

Rather than examine the potential harms that big tech is inflicting on a volunteer-run service that many people have called the greatest act of cooperation in the history of the human race, Silicon Valley has doubled down on its reliance on Wikipedia

Most importantly, though, the study found that “this mutually beneficial relationship is in jeopardy: changes Google has made to its search results that involve directly surfacing Wikipedia content are significantly reducing traffic to Wikipedia.”

The difference, of course, is that Google is one of the richest companies in the world and Wikipedia is a volunteer project. When Wikipedia benefits, humankind benefits (in theory). When Google benefits, Google makes a lot of money.

The paper suggested that “a long-term reduction of traffic to Wikipedia due to the Knowledge Graph (and perhaps due to Google’s direct surfacing of Wikipedia content) could have substantial negative effects on Wikipedia’s peer production model. In particular, some have argued that this reduction in traffic could lead to a 'death spiral,' in which a decrease in visitors leads to a decline in both overall edits and new editors, not to mention much-needed donations.”

This is having impacts outside of a controlled study. A January email thread called “Lower Page Views” that circulated on the Wikimedia-L—an email listserv where Wikipedians and Wikimedia Foundation members discuss the site—explained that traffic to Wikipedia across the board was flat or had decreased in recent months; many of the respondents to that thread, which includes Wikimedia Foundation members as well as Wikipedia editors, blamed Google.

Rather than examine the potential harms that big tech is inflicting on a volunteer-run service that many people have called the greatest act of cooperation in the history of the human race, Silicon Valley has doubled down on its reliance on Wikipedia.

Wikipedians are upset that Amazon Alexa is surfacing answers from Wikipedia without giving proper credit; a thread on Wikimedia-L wonders aloud whether the Amazon Echo was violating copyright law because it doesn’t attribute answers to Wikipedia. Meanwhile, both Facebook and YouTube have outsourced their fake news and conspiracy problems to Wikipedia’s unpaid volunteers.

There is a problem here, and it’s not one of anti conservative bias. It’s that Google has haphazardly outsourced finding knowledge to its algorithms and to a website that is run by volunteers, and that outsourcing is killing the site. If a random Wikipedia editor falsely calls Republican Nazis, it’s a juvenile troll by an unpaid pseudonymous person. If Google incorrectly sources that information, though, it’s a national shitstorm.