Should Google Be Trusted To Censor Websites According To What It Determines To Be “True”?

Here's irony for you: when Google says it can develop software to decide who's not telling the truth, it's lying.

Here’s irony for you: when Google says it can develop software to decide who’s not telling the truth, it’s lying.

Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil.” It’s well-debased by now: agreeing to help China censor the internet modeled  a non-existent distinction between “don’t be evil” and “don’t assist evil.” I’m not ready to call Google’s looming truth algorithm “evil,” but it is certainly sinister and dangerous.

Google’s search engine rose to dominate the field by using the number of incoming links to a web page to determine where it appears in search results. Pages that many other sites link to are ranked higher. “The downside is that websites full of misinformation can rise up the rankings, if enough people link to them,” says Newscientist.

Now a Google research team is altering the system to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its web popularity. Instead of counting incoming links, the proposed new system would count the number of “incorrect” facts within a page. “A source that has few false facts is considered to be trustworthy,” says the team. Each page will get its computer-determined Knowledge-Based Trust score, which the software will derive by tapping into Google’s  Knowledge Vault, a repository of what Google’s claims is Absolute Truth based on web consensus.  Web pages that contain contradictory information will be bumped down the rankings, so fewer minds will be warped by non-conforming information.

Naturally, the Left, assuming that its view of the universe is the unassailably correct and virtuous one, loves this idea. That should put that”climate change denialists” in their places–at the bottom of web searches. Says Salon, which never met a conservative argument that wasn’t a lie (NEVER met? Oh, oh. There goes Ethics Alarms down the search results!), “Even though the former program is just in the research stage, some anti-science advocates are upset about the potential development, likely because their websites will become buried under content that is, well, true.”

Get that? The bad guys don’t like this plan—which means it must be good!—because it will prevent them from lying, which is defined as disagreeing with any tenets of progressiveness and political correctness, programmed right into the software as “fact.” How do I know this will happen? That’s not the proper question. The proper question is what’s going to stop it? Can you see Google reducing the rank of websites that are consistently deceitful and misleading, like those claiming the women make only 77% as much as men because of gender bias, or that one in four women who go to college are raped, or that Mike Brown had his hands up, or that the Democratic Party, “for more than 200 years…has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights”?  I can’t.

Will websites that assert religious beliefs be judged “untrue”? How about sites that assert that Islam is a violent and revolutionary religion?  Determining which sites get the most traffic and links can be determined objectively; deciding what is true and factual requires complex and debatable distinctions between opinion and fact, metaphor, hyperbole, ideology, skepticism, and deceit (Did Bill have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky?). Will just facts be at issue, or deceitful arguments made specifically to make readers believe what isn’t true? We just were informed that “cholesterol is not as bad for you as we once thought,” after years of being told that consuming eggs, milk and steak would kill as for sure. There were nutritional and economic consequeneces of that “fact.” Would Google’s new search methods have buried the assertions of contrarian scientists, who were claiming this years ago, as liars? [NOTE of CORRECTION In the original post, this latest finding was phrased as “reducing dietary cholesterol has no health benefits.”  That was careless and inaccurate: I apologize to readers. The post isn’t about cholesterol, but I should have been more careful.]

Do you want to bet U.S. democracy on it?

Far from making American better informed, Google, knowingly or not, will be attempting to duplicate the pre-internet, pre-cable, monopoly on information distribution the networks once enjoyed, creating a more homogenous public opinion because CBS, NBC and ABC were trusted as the objective guardians, gate-keepers and beneficent authorities on what was factual and what was not. Now we know, as we should have known then, that our trust was misplaced, and that the system was polluted by bias, and as all such systems will forever be.

Google’s brave new algorithm is no different: the machine will be objective, but those programming it will not be. The result will be prior restraint of information. There will be an official arbiter of “fact”: Google.

I don’t trust the government to decide unilaterally what is The Truth, and I don’t trust a big corporation, especially one that was willing to collaborate with the Chinese government, to do that either. This is not a case like the theoretical head transplants discussed here earlier, where an advance in science might be used in unethical ways, but is itself ethically neutral. The objective of Google’s threatened “truth algorithm” is itself unethical, as well as riddled with arrogance and hubris. It is an abuse of Google’s power to control information for it to presume what is truth. No machine or program is that omniscient, and certainly those who program it are not.


Sources: arxiv, Salon, NewScientist

38 thoughts on “Should Google Be Trusted To Censor Websites According To What It Determines To Be “True”?

  1. We are sliding down the slippery slope immensely fast into changing from having freedoms into being communist. Google as well as the elite as they call themselves will be the thought police.
    What others bring to the news that is believed to be false all to often proves to be accurate.
    There is no one in the House, Senate and/or the Congress that will stop this agenda. Just as the House, Senate and/or the Congress will do nothing about the president when he takes illegal actions.
    Sad what a disaster this country has came to and the depths of scum that it has declined to.

  2. Things as yet unproven could be labeled ‘false’, differing views of current scientific issues would not easily gain readership. Galileo redux.

  3. Odds are Google will scrap the whole project if it doesn’t meet some preconceived – thus biased – notion of truth. Someone’s biases have to be taken into account somewhere to confirm the ranking algorithm performs as expected, lest it spit out gibberish rankings as any truth “based on web consensus” is likely wont to. There’s no room for ethics here anywhere.

  4. Google and/or the federal government should keep their Big Brother hands off these things. It’s up to us, the discerning users, to determine whether this or that website is trustworthy or competent. It’s one thing if a site incites readers to illegalities or plasters rank pornography over the monitor. It’s quite another when it interferes with the free exchange of news and ideas. That’s what the 1st Amendment is all about.

    • Google is a private firm. If it’s established a de-facto monopoly, that’s only because of the quality of its product compared to competitors.

      Should the quality go down, in theory, competitors will take over… but VHS beat Betamax, and Gresham’s law holds good for information too.

      Google makes money from advertising. It apparently is giving customers what they want here – “truth” is determined not by any objective method, but by how many believe it. That’s usually good, but not always. There’s a very real danger of positive feedback causing groupthink here.

      • In case you’re not aware of it, Zoe, there’s a movement around here to have the federal government step in to overlord the internet, which is why I mentioned it. I’m aware that Google itself is a private firm. I’m also glad to see that you have a basic concept of how the free market works. Personally, I reject monopolies as much as I do socialism and for much the same reasons. The issue here, however, is how much this company or any entity has an ethical right to censor private traffic. To an extent, it does. To do so on a basis that a website’s output is untruthful (truth being an absolute, BTW) is going too far, in my opinion. Once again, the purpose of the 1st Amendment is to facilitate political free speech and the free exchange of information. That’s really what the internet is for. Therefore, that’s what Google is for. If they set themselves up as an editorial board and edit those websites that don’t conform to their “objective truth”, they may get that unwanted competitor.

      • I’ve been meaning to meditate and write on the topic for some time. Although a private firm, certain entities, once large enough, ubiquitous enough, and capable of “modifying” or “adjusting” everyday life for a large component of the population, become quasi-political entities…

        I find the term “monopoly” to be insufficient to describe these entities, because some monopolies aren’t quasi-political…

        But for an industry that arguably masses the ability to control communication and information flows, Google, among others, definitely fits the mold.

  5. There’s a difference between and this site.

    There is a thing called “objective truth”.

    Even if you just have a trinary – complete BS, opinion/might be, and very probably true, that would be enough to be useful.

  6. I’d be very surprised if they weren’t just using Bayesian inference with a large database and following links.


    I think most readers would only understand 10% or less of that article, but at least some of the concepts aren’t completely obscure. The application to justice for example:

    Gardner-Medwin[21] argues that the criterion on which a verdict in a criminal trial should be based is not the probability of guilt, but rather the probability of the evidence, given that the defendant is innocent (akin to a frequentist p-value). He argues that if the posterior probability of guilt is to be computed by Bayes’ theorem, the prior probability of guilt must be known. This will depend on the incidence of the crime, which is an unusual piece of evidence to consider in a criminal trial. Consider the following three propositions:

    A The known facts and testimony could have arisen if the defendant is guilty
    B The known facts and testimony could have arisen if the defendant is innocent
    C The defendant is guilty.

    Gardner-Medwin argues that the jury should believe both A and not-B in order to convict. A and not-B implies the truth of C, but the reverse is not true. It is possible that B and C are both true, but in this case he argues that a jury should acquit, even though they know that they will be letting some guilty people go free. See also Lindley’s paradox.

    This stuff is relatively easy to compute. There’s an obvious danger that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, but I think this is a case where we’ll just have to see how it pans out.

    I see no nefarious purpose. I do see the possibility of it going horribly wrong.

    • I see a purpose that the individuals are incapable of seeing as nefarious, because they are excited about the science, but an enterprise that will inevitably go horribly wrong, and therefore so inevitably dangerous that it is irresponsible and de facto nefarious. Kind of like Jurassic Park.

  7. “We just learned that reducing dietary cholesterol has no health benefits; would Google’s new search methods have buried the assertions of contrarian scientists, who were claiming this years ago, as liars?”

    I have to take issue with you on this, Jack. I have never seen or heard anything that says reducing cholesterol has “no” or even “a few” health benefits. Put simply: CHOLESTEROL KILLS BY PLUGGING UP THE BLOOD VESSELS THAT FEED THE HEART MUSCLE. I’ve seen the pictures in situ via MPI (myocardial perfusion imaging) and it has been proven over and over again, almost without exception, in every controlled study that this substance choking off the lifeline was the end of a lifetime — 40,50 +…. years on — of depositing fat of the kind found only in cholesterol-containing foods .

    The most recent data, discussed in this article:

    has a reference to the latest report (which I am still wading through) which is likely to see changes in the PROPORTION of the WHOLE picture, but is not in any way, shape or form taking cholesterol off the list.

    Any new guidelines will say what doctors and dieticians and nutritionists (not just people who call themselves that or who have other agenda, such as Dr. Peter Attia who practices the same kind of science as those who make a living writing creationist textbooks) have simply been saying all along: STOP CONCENTRATING ON INDIVIDUAL NUTRIENTS AND MORE ON DEVELOPING OVERALL PATTERNS OF EATING. The fact that the restrictions are intensified or eased (on cholesterol or sugar or salt or free-range chocolate) does not change that focus.

    Cholesterol, specifically saturated fat from dietary intake, plays a causative role in heart disease and stroke. It is ONE of the factors that does so. It is the individual American, (mis)led by our precious media, who has been translating this to babytalk and “opinion” (the meaningless Facebook-like), according to things as irrational as their own appetites and what mama put on the plate. The pyramid used up until the 50s had its use and its truths. The changes since then have made a new configuration out of the pyramid because the BALANCE has changed as the American diet has changed. Not the other way round.

    Nobody has ever shown by empirical evidence that foods containing high amounts of cholesterol were good for the human (or animal, for that matter) body, 115-year old woman crediting her longevity to butter-baked chitlins and goose-liver, notwithstanting. All that was said was to REDUCE, CUT DOWN, AVOID HIGH AMOUNTS OF FOOD CONTAINING saturated fat, sugar, salt and THINK IN TERMS OF THE WHOLE. The only changes have been in the proportion of the reduction suggested. And those suggestions are coming from the evidence of American’s bodies.

    • The studies show that reducing cholesterol intake if you have high cholesterol does far less good than we have been told. People manufacture too much of their own cholesterol. Having too much in the system is dangerous. But the “facts” as they were relayed to us: steak and eggs are deadly! were overstated, as in “crap.” My point is that “facts” are often not facts: we’re still learning. My point is that this might have been “false” under Google’s formula. I wasn’t inviting quibbles about cholesterol. I discussed the study with my cardiologist, and he said, “Yeah, we knew this a long time ago: the anti-cholesterol hype was wildly overstated by the media and doctors.”

    • “No health benefits” was obviously overstated, however. The correction is appreciated, but this another illustration of what the post is about: anyone who seizes on that off-hand statement as affirmative confirmation that they should go stuff themselves with Eggs Benedict until it comes out of their ears is an idiot.

    • “Cholesterol, specifically saturated fat from dietary intake, plays a causative role in heart disease and stroke.” Sorry, but you are wrong on this. Consistently, in most humans, dietary intake doesn’t affect blood cholesterol at all. In the 25% that do respond, both LDL and HDL are raised at the same rate leaving the ratio unchanged.

      Source with backing links:

  8. First, I suppose we would have to define truth, via Webster’s:
    1. a) archaic : fidelity, constancy; b : sincerity in action, character, and utterance
    2. a (1) : the state of being the case : fact (2) : the body of real things, events, and facts : actuality (3) often capitalized : a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality; b : a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true ; c : the body of true statements and propositions
    3. a : the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality;
    4. Capitalized Christian Science : god
    Note that with the exception of # 3a and 4, all refer to the reality of a situation; in other words, fact. I frankly do NOT want an algorithm, especially not one written by Google, to determine what is or is not fact, for me. I am quite capable of determining for myself what reality is.

    • Anti-science advocate means anyone who thinks climate change data is being hyped and overstated and that people like Nancy Pelosi and the President who keep saying the issue is settled really don’t know what they are talking about, and anyone who believes in God.

  9. What is the truth value of these 3 statements:

    Thomas Jefferson was one of the US Founding Fathers.
    Moses was one of the US Founding Fathers
    Santa Claus was one of the US Founding Fathers.

    And this one:
    George Washington was the first president of the USA

        • Hanson was the first man to hold the title “President of the United States”. This was under the Articles of Confederation, though. The job was a lot different than the presidency under the Constitution.

          • Doesn’t matter, Steve. The statement was “George Washington was the first President of the United States” and is, in fact, untrue. What the job description looked like was not mentioned.

              • It is my contention that of the 4 statements, only 1 can be ruled as definitely false.

                One is widely believed, and is as close to being 100% true as you can get without more explicit definition of terms.

                Another one even more widely believed, and whether 100% true or 100% false depends on an ambiguous definition of the wording.

                The final one is contentious, and politically charged. One might even call it a matter of religious belief, not susceptible to proof or rational argument. Or depending again on the definition of terms.

                Now contrast with the statement “Sir Edmund Barton was the first prime minister of the Commonwealth of Australia”. How many here could answer that without looking it up?

            • The statement was “George Washington was the first President of the United States”

              Not quite. The question was more carefully worded:
              George Washington was the first president of the USA

              United States and USA have subtly different connotations.

              United States of America appears in the DOI. United States was used as a synonym. The acronym USA apparently came later,(I’ve not been able to track down first usage) and common usage implies the US as it is today, under the Constitution rather than Articles of Federation. An alternate meaning of USA is “United States Army” too.

                • Did you know that ‘USA’ was stamped on the bottoms of barrels containing salt pork, delivered to the Continental Army during the American Revolution? At the time, nobody knew what it stood for, and, presumably, cared, since no one asked.

                  • I’m sure all they cared about was that they were getting some food! Logistics via the Continental Congress was an abject disgrace. The failure of “government by committee” was a prime motivation in scrapping the Articles of Confederation.

  10. Pingback: Some Speculation About the Google Truth Machine - Windypundit

  11. I think that a lot of stuff written these days is with disregard to facts or real reporting. Its basically propaganda or opinion and many tailor their news sources to a political or ideological weight to the news. People AKA go to MSNBC for left and Fox News for right. Not clearly defined as this always. But news it not just reporting facts, its supporting a viewpoint on what they are reporting. Its like your Dad telling you not to go fast, and has to tell you a gory story on why you shouldn’t. Even news reporters have a opinion on something. The web is full of bad facts, self fulfilling creative news and loads of wannabe reporters who lack any journalistic and objective bones in their body. But Google is not my factual police and I would rather sift through to find the truth then have one body like Google do it. Many times the truth is with the reader who believes what they want to believe. I mean how many liberals will even watch Fox news, or conservatives tune in to MSNBC? People these days seek out a truth that is already filtered. Do we really want Google to do more of that?

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