Researchers at Google have come up with a new way to rank webpages. Rather than count the links leading to a site, the new algorithm measures a page’s accuracy by counting the number of incorrect facts:
THE internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.
A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page. “A source that has few false facts is considered to be trustworthy,” says the team (arxiv.org/abs/1502.03519v1). The score they compute for each page is its Knowledge-Based Trust score.
The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth. Web pages that contain contradictory information are bumped down the rankings.
Yes, Google’s researchers think they’ve found a way to measure the truthfulness of site.
I don’t think this is in use yet, and I sincerely hope it never is. Google is too important and too central to the act of finding information online. If this entity ever decided to start judging the truthfulness of websites then I fear it would eventually be corrupted to serve ill ends.
We already know of national governments seizing websites and restricting access to information in an attempt to only share their version of the truth; if Google got into the game then we could well end up with something out of 1984.
Given that there’s a common saying now that one should never memorize what one can look up, my fear is less a conspiracy theory than life imitating art:
And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”
And the worst thing is, by controlling Google’s version of the truth, Orwell’s Ministry of Truth wouldn’t even need to eliminate or correct the print copies of the doubleplusungood content; they could simply make the online copies impossible to find.
This isn’t the first novel change Google has proposed for its search engine; they’ve long since decided to punish any deliberate SEO manipulation. They also downrank (an Orwellian word, now that I think about it) poorly written content, businesses which thrive on negative publicity, and other sites which Google doesn’t approve.
But the problem with all that downranking is that it is a judgement call which is then applied mechanically. And when it comes to truth, well, there are many topics where there is no single truth.
What’s more, there are topics where the official truth has been called into doubt.
Take nutrition, for example. There’s now a debate going on over whether the decades long USDA dietary recommendations are backed by solid scientific research. The official truth could well be proven wrong in the near future, but if you had to depend on Google’s new search algorithm you might never find that out.
When it comes to scientific progress, the facts we believe true today might be disproven tomorrow. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t be able to find that out through Google – not until they update their Knowledge Vault.
There are just so many different ways that this is a bad idea that if Google did implement it, Google would render its search engine suspect. We’d have no way of knowing whose truth is being shown in the search results.