Google’s algorithm appears to have been manipulated to deliver a racist, anti-Semitic top result on searches for the term “Boasian anthropology” — a reference to the work of Franz Boas, a German-American anthropologist whose theory of relativism argued against the belief that Western civilization was superior to other cultures.
As of Monday morning, the “featured snippet” box displayed at the top of search results read: “Boasian Anthropology is a pseudo-scientific Jewish assault on White European racial consciousness and identity. To put it simply, the Jewish Boasian school of Anthropology suggested wrongly, that ‘race was a social construct’ not rooted in biology or scientific determinism.” The text was pulled from a link to a 2015 post on “Smash Cultural Marxism,” a white nationalist blog. Some searches for the term returned a Wikipedia link as the top result by late Monday morning in Europe, while others continued to return the misleading snippet. By Monday afternoon in Europe, the misleading link was no longer appearing as the top result.
Deana Weibel-Swanson, professor of anthropology at Grand Valley State University, alerted her followers to the incendiary search results in a Facebook post on Sunday. “Well, the white nationalists are directly impacting anthropology now,” Weibel Swanson wrote, quoting her colleague, Heather Van Wormer, who called on others to “click on the tiny feedback right under the result, and report this to google [sic] as a racist, anti-science, white nationalist propaganda site that has no business being on the top of the search results.”
Michael Oman-Reagan, an anthropologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said on Twitter early Monday that the flawed top result was still appearing on searches eight hours after Weibel-Swanson published her post.
“When we recognize that a query asks a question, we programmatically detect pages that answer the user’s question, and display a top result as a featured snippet in the search results,” Google explains on its page about featured snippets. “Like all search results, featured snippets reflect the views or opinion of the site from which we extract the snippet, not that of Google. We are always working to improve our ability to detect the most useful snippet, so the results you see may change over time.”
Google faced similar criticism in December, after it was revealed that searches for the phrase “did the Holocaust happen?” returned a link from a neo-Nazi website as the first result. A Google spokesperson told Fortune at the time that the company was “saddened to see that hate organizations still exist,” but it did not alter the search results. “We do not remove content from our search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content, malware and violations of our webmaster guidelines,” the spokesperson said.
In a statement to The Verge on Monday, a Google spokesperson said: “Google does not endorse or select responses manually. This content comes from the third-party sites that we do not control. The feature is an automatic and algorithmic match to the search query. We welcome feedback, as we’re always working to improve our algorithms. Users and content owners can give feedback on incorrect information through the “Feedback” button at the bottom right of the WebAnswer.”
Update, February 27th, 10:35AM ET: Updated to include statement from Google, and to clarify that the misleading snippet is no longer the top result in searches for “Boasian anthropology.”