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Google's algorithm-based Featured Snippets may send fake news to Home devices

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Why it matters to you

As fake news of all shapes and sizes spreads across the web, even internet giants like Google have a hard time avoiding it.

Despite companies like Facebook or Google attempting to take a crack at curbing the amount of fake news circulating across the internet, the problem remains inherently endemic to the web. Because of this, Google’s own smart speaker — the Google Home — recently found itself pulling fake news clips when users asked it questions concerning former president Barack Obama and an alleged plan to start a coup. By turning to its bot-assisted Featured Snippets, the Google Home inadvertently read a short paragraph from a less-than-credible site claiming Obama intended to overthrow the United States government at the conclusion of his 2016 presidential term.

In this case, the story came from an unreliable third-party site that was not exactly vetted by human curators. However, Google did tell Recode that while its Featured Snippets do generate by way of algorithms, it does investigate any story flagged for having “inappropriate or misleading content.” Concerning the story about the alleged coup, Google took the story down as quickly as it could after debunking it.

“Featured Snippets in Search provide an automatic and algorithmic match to a given search query, and the content comes from third-party sites,” Google wrote to Recode. “Unfortunately, there are instances when we feature a site with inappropriate or misleading content. When we are alerted to a Featured Snippet that violates our policies, we work quickly to remove them, which we have done in this instance. We apologize for any offense this may have caused.”

Specifically, the question a Google Home user asked was, “is Obama planning a coup?” After diving into Featured Snippets, the Home replied, “not only could Obama be in bed with the Communist Chinese, but Obama may in fact be planning a Communist coup d’etat at the end of his term in 2016!” Due in part to the fact Google’s Featured Snippet algorithm scans unvetted — and sometimes unreliable — sources, the Home reading a story deemed “fake news” stands to happen on occasion. Despite this tendency for fake news, a digital marketing consultant told The Outline people actually respond positively to quickly read headlines.

More: OK, Google, what can you do? Tips and tricks for the Google Home

“It’s having a very good impact on the search results. People love them,” Stone Temple Consulting CEO Eric Enge told The Outline.

But is it smart to leave the vetting process of automatically curated stories up to the public? While Google continues to tinker with its Featured Snippet aspect, perhaps. What this does immediately prove, however, is anything shared by Google Home (when it dips into Featured Snippets) should be taken with a grain of salt.