Ever since the results of the US elections late last year, fake news has been one of the rather thorny issues plaguing the tech world. The Internet has made it all too easy to spread misinformation, especially when dressed up as legitimate and authoritative news. Although not as derided over fake news as Facebook, Google hasn’t exactly gotten away scot-free. And now it might even be put under a bigger spotlight after it was discovered that Google Home, through really no fault of its own, has a fake news problem as well.
When asked if former US President Barrack Obama was planning a coup, Google Home would respond in the positive. While some will probably believe in their hearts that there is truth to that, the fact is there is little evidence to support that, at least for now. So why is Google Home giving this kind of inaccurate answer? It all boils down to a Google Search feature called “Featured Snippets”.
While most Google search results are presented as a list of possible hits, once in a while it surfaces a single answer in a card at the very top of the list. In cases where there is little argument about the factual basis of an answer, Google sources those from its Knowledge Graph, which are, in turn, sourced from verified sources. This applies to queries about temperatures, ages, etc. Featured snippets, on the other hand, don’t always pass the verified source requirement. It’s based on Google’s proprietary algorithms and may sometimes surface content from purposely misleading sites, whether for entertainment or for malcontent.
Google is well aware of the possibility of error with its featured snippets but isn’t exactly interested in removing the hit-or-miss feature. It sees its as a feature designed to capitalize on users’ desire to get short answers quickly, even if said answers are actually wrong. In other words, it’s too big a cash cow to be put to pasture. Instead, Google is relying on eagle-eyed netizens to report such inaccuracies, at which point Google takes away their privileged status.
Eagle-eyed netizens, however, have no control over what Google Home blurts out. Featured snippets might work on the web because Google can present alternative search results on the same page. Home, however, is able to give only a single answer rather than rattle off a list of results. Unfortunately, sometimes those answers come from such unverified sources. Interestingly, Amazon’s Alexa seems to prefer to feign ignorance in those matters.