Googling 'Martin Luther King' returns neo-Nazi propaganda. Why won't Google fix it?
Forty-nine years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white supremacist, if you google his name, one of the top google results for "Martin Luther King Jr." is white supremacist propaganda.
The first-page result when you search for the civil rights icon is a bombastic biography that purports to be a "true historical examination." It tells the story of King "that no one dares tell" — about his love of violence, his plagiarism, his orgies and his war on American values.
The site, registered as "https://www.martinlutherking.org," was created by Stormfront, a leading online community of white nationalists that concocted the MLK site by mixing unflattering details from King's private life with false information and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The site is, like many "cloaked" propaganda sites that masquerade as news or education, cut from the same cloth as the sort of sites that lead to the violent radicalization of right-wing extremists.
So why doesn't Google fix it?
Jessie Daniels, a professor of sociology at City University of New York, has been asking this question for a decade. Daniels first wrote about the site in 2009 in a research paper about online racism and what she calls cloaked sites — websites that "conceal authorship in order to disguise deliberately a hidden political agenda." The paper could be considered an early look at "fake news," though the vocabulary didn't exist at the time.
"Regressive forces like white nationalism lead the way in terms of using technology," Daniels said in a phone interview.
She first encountered the site in the late '90s, while teaching courses in race and ethnic relations sociology. At the outset of the internet, groups like Stormfront took advantage of basic online media illiteracy, like the belief that ".org" domain name means a legitimate nonprofit corporation is running the site (which is not true in all cases).
Daniels said propaganda adapts, outpacing people's ability to discern fake from real. The modern manifestation of this, and perhaps the most pandemic example yet, is Facebook's "fake news" problem — not the White House smear on inconvenient factual truths, but the wave of intentionally incendiary partisan news with no factual basis in reality.
"Regressive forces like white nationalism lead the way in terms of using technology."
The proliferation of racist propaganda disguised as reputable information has real consequences. Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot and killed nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, was radicalized in the privacy of his own home, in part thanks to Google searches for "black-on-white crime" that led him to a right-wing propaganda site disguised as a news source.
Propagandists aren't the only bad actors who find Google a convenient tool for exploitation. Exploitative payday lenders take out ads against search terms like "need help paying rent fast," even though Google has banned them before. And sites called mugshot databases compile arrest information from public records and then charge targets money to remove it from the site, or else they float that person's potentially criminal past to the top of the search results.
When Google was confronted about the Stormfront MLK site six years ago, their excuse for not acting was that they only manipulate search rankings when forced to by law.
"A site's ranking in Google's search results is automatically determined by computer algorithms using hundreds of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query," a Google spokesperson told the Huffington Post in 2011. "The only sites we omit from our search results are those we are legally compelled to remove or those maliciously attempting to manipulate our results."
Since 2011, Google has only become a more central source of news and information in the United States. The problem of online racist propaganda is getting worse, experts say — malicious actors with political agendas are using Google more effectively and that the structuring of Google search results has the power to influence elections.
So what do they say today? Google admitted in a statement that, in the process of delivering the best search results, they "don't always get it right," and are looking to adjust the search algorithm to knock sites like the Stormfront MLK page down the rankings.
"When non-authoritative information ranks too high in our search results, we develop scalable, automated approaches to fix the problems, rather than manually removing these one-by-one," Google's statement to Mic said. "We are working on improvements to our algorithm that will help surface more high quality, credible content on the web and we'll continue to improve our algorithms over time in order to tackle these challenges."
"There's no app for finding a moral compass." —CUNY professor Jessie Daniels
But Daniels is wary of the the idea that a technological intervention can solve the problem of online racism and radicalization.
"Technology isn't going to save us," Daniels said. "We have to be able to face ourselves and a society and what we're capable of, and find a moral compass. There's no app for finding a moral compass."