Friday, June 10, 2016

Is Google manipulating Autocomplete to help Hillary?


But the courageous bloggers at SourceFed are all a-tremble, overcome with the enormity of their Pulitzer-worthy discovery of Google's diabolical, democracy-crushing conspiracy. The SourceFed brain trust is no doubt pondering whom will be the best actors to portray them in the inevitable film adaptation of their triumphant exposé.

Their claim: "SourceFed has discovered that Google has been actively altering search results in favor of Hillary Clinton's campaign." [I added the emphasis because the video spins away from search results into Autocomplete search recommendations: rather different things. But I'm nitpicking.]

Watch the video that "They Don't Want You To See™," but make sure you're sitting down.

Wow! Once again, They are up to no good, manipulating us as They always do. How do I know? Movies.

Need more evidence? Google responded! Why would they respond if it weren't true???
"Google Autocomplete does not favor any candidate or cause. Claims to the contrary simply misunderstand how Autocomplete works. Our Autocomplete algorithm will not show a predicted query that is offensive or disparaging when displayed in conjunction with a person’s name. More generally, our autocomplete predictions are produced based on a number of factors including the popularity of search terms."
Okay, okay. Yes, SourceFed's claim is utter nonsense. And not just because they use the whip sound effect way too much. [Honestly, though: give it a rest.]

No. they're wrong because they don't understand Autocomplete and have fashioned their misunderstanding into a boogeyman in the same way people who don't understand magnets fashion them into perpetual motion machines or performance-enhancing bracelets.

It's also worth noting the evolution of SourceFed's conspiracy theory. It started with unexpected Autocomplete ... completions. But it quickly spun itself into Eric Schmidt is directing Google to manipulate search results in favor of Hillary to throw the 2016 Presidential election.

This is akin to people seeing lights in the sky that they can't understand then drawing conclusions about super-intelligent, intergalactic space aliens sent to abduct and probe Earthlings. Klaatu barada nicto, indeed!

In any case, A Medium Corporation jumped out with this debunk of the alleged manipulation.

Vox did this takedown: There's no evidence that Google is manipulating searches to help Hillary Clinton.

My friend Matt Lowry, The Skeptical Teacher, also carved it up: These are the dumbest Clinton conspiracy theories. Ever.

If this were a scientific proposal, it would score our equivalent of a "pants on fire," Wolfgang Pauli's "Not even wrong."

The whole episode reminds us of the importance of including skepticism and critical thinking in our science instruction. If our students can use KE = 1/2 mv^2 but then base personal decisions on what the day's horoscope, we as science teacher have failed in an important way.

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