In Defence of Liberty

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Auto-complete Fools

autocomplete-fools

Do Google censor their search predictions? (Source: Google/Bing)

Despite the proliferation of technology deepening within society, ignorance about how that technology works often seeps in. An example would be the claims that the search engine Google actively censor its search suggestions — the auto-complete function — in deference to the Conservative Party [1].

Auto-complete

Now, when you type in a search term into modern search engines, such as Google, an algorithm begins. Based on search traffic, web content and other factors, certain terms are suggested. Whilst not detailing their algorithm, Google explain this process in their support section [2]:

Autocomplete predictions are automatically generated by an algorithm without any human involvement. The algorithm is based on a number of objective factors, including how often others have searched for a word.

The algorithm is designed to reflect the range of info on the web. So just like the web, the search term you see might seem strange or surprising.

Note: Our algorithm automatically detects and excludes a small set of search terms.

It is the case that the auto-complete function does not complete for searches in Google UK for “Tories are” or “Conservatives are”, and Google UK does auto-complete for other searches such as “Labour are”. However, the phrase “The Conservative Party is” does have this functionality, providing four terms:

the conservative party is your enemy
why the conservative party is bad
is the conservative party right wing
is the conservative party republican or democrat

autocomplete-fools-the-conservative-party-is.JPG

A Google spokesperson told The Guardian that the company “can categorically state that tax is not remotely connected to this, nor are their ‘conspiracy theories’ founded in any way”.

Another incredulous voice

Over at Another Angry Voice, the angry voice of Thomas G. Clark, remains unconvinced by this “official excuse”:

Apparently Google’s official excuse for this is that their algorithms filter out swear words. This excuse is pathetic and unbelievable for several reasons.

1. If the sweary searches are filtered out, surely the non-sweary ones (scums, fascists …) would get bumped up the list. Look at the Bing autocomplete suggestions.

2. Do Google really expect the public to be stupid enough to believe that nobody has been making sweary searches about Labour, the Lib-Dems or the SNP? If Google can filter out the sweary suggestions for other parties but keep the offensive and inaccurate ones, why is the whole dropdown function disabled for the Tories?

3. Do Google really expect the public to be stupid enough to accept such a blatant bullshit explanation? Perhaps they imagine that if we’re thick enough to elect a bunch of dishonest, incompetent and downright malicious bastards like the Tories, we must be thick enough to believe any old crap?

autocomplete-fools-aav.JPG

This was ‘liked’ 443 times. (Source: Facebook/Another Angry Voice)

Now, I apologise for including all those swear words, but sometimes intellectual incoherence needs to be captured in full. These are not three reasons: it is one appeal to personal incredulity, written out three times.

Religious auto-completion

The first question misunderstands how Google’s auto-complete function operates, and how it differs from Bing. These are two different search engines, with two different algorithms, with two different philosophies about how the auto-complete function should operate. Pointing to one search engine does not enlighten as to how another works.

Another field of human endeavour that would gather auto-completions Google might not wish to offer would be religion. On Google, the searches “Christians are” or “Jews are” do not auto-complete. In contrast, “Muslims are” has only the single, anodyne suggestion: “Muslisms are not terrorists”. Now, “Scientologists are” generates completions of “crazy”, “insane”, “idiots”, “stupid”.

autocomplete-fools-christiansautocomplete-fools-jewsautocomplete-fools-muslimsautocomplete-fools-scientology

Perhaps there is, somewhere in the vastness of the internet, Another Angry Scientologist, who is furiously rejecting the label of ‘conspiracy theorist’, all the while claiming he is asking “just a question” about a “policy” of removing search results for some religions but not others.

There is no “policy”, deferential or otherwise. It is an algorithm.

The second statement, again, misunderstands the Google auto-complete algorithm. The claim is not that no-one makes swear-laden searches for other political parties, but that the content, searches and other factors that would make those completions rank highly are not common enough. The third question does not even attempt to have a veneer of rationality, but it is an explicit appeal to personal incredulity.

It is quite troubling people do not listen to a technology company explaining how their own algorithms work.

References

[1] Hern, A., 2016. Google denies ‘Tories are/Labour are’ autocomplete ‘conspiracy theories’. The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/02/google-tories-are-labour-are-autocomplete-conspiracy-theories [Accessed: 3rd February 2016]

[2] Google, 2016. Autocomplete. Available from: https://support.google.com/websearch/answer/106230?hl=en [Accessed: 3rd February 2016]

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This entry was posted on February 4, 2016 by in National Politics and tagged , , , .
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