Carole Cadwalladr, a journalist for the Guardian and the Observer has a special interest in the colonisation of parts of the internet by the far-right. In December, she discovered that using Google to search for “Did the Holocaust happen?” returned search results from neo-Nazi Holocaust denial websites claiming that the Holocaust was a hoax perpetrated by Jews in order to enrich themselves and subjugate non-Jews. Cadwalladr was so horrified that she wrote about it, and paid Google more than £500 from her own pocket for advertisements to appear above the search results confirming that the Holocaust did happen, with links to websites describing the disgusting phenomenon of Holocaust denial.
Cadwalladr’s outrage was directed not only at those who published the Holocaust denial websites, but at Google itself for pretending that it has no control over search results whilst profiting from them. Google said that it does “not remove content from search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content, malware and violations of our webmaster guidelines.” She wrote: “[Google is] profiting from Holocaust denial. Its algorithm is helping Stormfront reach new recruits – the next generation of Thomas Mairs and [Anders] Breiviks – all the while adding to its bottom line, its quarterly profits.”
Initially, Google refused to do anything about this, noting that their algorithms were automated and might return offensive results sometimes. But Cadwalladr kept going, and her story was picked up by other media outlets which joined Cadwalladr’s scrutiny of Google’s highly-irresponsible attitude.
Now Google has said that it is changing its algorithm. Confirming the change, a spokesman said: “This is a really challenging problem, and something we’re thinking deeply about in terms of how we can do a better job.” Now the Holocaust denial results have been demoted by Google, but as she pointed out on Twitter, similar searches are still returning far-right Holocaust denial websites.
The colonisation of parts of the internet by the far-right is an immense problem, and Cadwalladr’s achievement is impressive. She has achieved a measure of success where many have tried and failed. For example, in 2004 Google came under scrutiny because searching for “Jew” returned a website dedicated to promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories. Google refused to change its algorithm that time, instead bizarrely opting to display a message above the search results encouraging users not to trust the “offensive search results”.
Every day that this problem goes unsolved, Google is directing millions of users into the clutches of far-right propagandists. Hopefully they will be disgusted by what they see, but who knows how many children and suggestible adults are persuaded every day that Jews are conspiring to swindle and corrupt society?
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