Modi Watch: Google Apologizes, We All Fall Down
Earlier this week, social media users stirred up a storm with the discovery that images of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi show up on a search for ‘Top 10 Indian criminals.’ Like most social media storms, it was soon trending on Twitter, with several unrealistic demands for its removal. Eventually, it culminated in an apology from Google, along with the following disclaimer on the page:
‘These results don’t reflect Google’s opinion or our beliefs; our algorithms automatically matched the query to web pages with these images.’
It’s not everyday that Google apologizes for the content appearing in its search results. In fact, if you google ‘Google apologizes’ you will find that 8 out of the first 10 links now pertain to the Modi incident, while the other two pertain to a bug in Google maps and Google translator with racist and homophobic implications respectively.
Interestingly, both of the other episodes where Google apologized, concerned a genuine glitch in Google products. Google’s explanation for Modi’s images appearing under offensive search terms was due to a British Daily that was publishing images of Modi with erroneous meta data. Meta data is to search engines, what content is to users. In other words, it helps search engines to read what your website is about and rank your website for particular keywords. It is thus safe to assume that the publication in this case had used keywords like criminals in its meta tags, to show up in these search results.
But my question is this: even if a website had intentionally tried to have the PM’s images show up in negative search results, is Google the one accountable? Let me elaborate on why I ask this.
Tinkering with technical features such as meta tags to control search results is not uncommon. In fact these are basic Search Engine Optimization tactics that can either hide or ensure that your site appears on the first page of Google search results. And as the new-age proverb goes – ‘The best place to hide a dead body is page 2 of Google search results.’
This is not to say that manipulating Google search results is easy – Google is continually changing its algorithm so that it becomes more difficult for people to circumvent these rules. Yet, with persistent efforts and the right strategy, manipulating search results is possible.
Consider this: if you search for ‘most corrupt political party in the world,’ the first page that shows up is the Wikipedia page of the Indian National Congress. But interestingly, nowhere does the content on the page even mention the Congress being the ‘most corrupt in the world.’ And how many times does the word corrupt appear on the page? Twice. Given that the content of the page has little correlation with the search term, similar to what occurred in the Modi incident, there is reason to believe that this is outcome is not coincidental, but driven by ulterior motifs. Again, is this something that Google should have apologized for?
Modi is not the only one whose image appears for ‘Top 10 Criminals.’ Peers who shares this honour with him include Will Smith, Akhilesh Yadav, and the Indian-American lesbian couple Seema and Shannon. Google’s selective display of the disclaimer questions the democratic nature of its own search platform. Is it not implicit that search results across the site do not reflect Google’s beliefs or opinions? When Obama’s picture shows up for ‘most hated American leaders,’ you don’t see Google’s disclaimer flash on your screen.
It’s no unknown fact that the PM himself is a P.R. mastermind Google his name and nowhere on Page 1 is there a mention of the Gujarat riots. In fact 5 out of the first 10 results are his own social media profiles and websites, indicating that he effectively controls half the content present on his digital real estate.
Had #Top10Criminals not spread like wildfire on social media, it may well have been cleverly buried with the rest of the dead bodies. All the hype, however, has only reinforced the linkage between ‘Modi’ and the phrase ‘Top 10 Criminals.’ Quartz explains this phenomenon well here.
But the implications of the Modi-Google fiasco are deeper than simply increasing the visibility of his name along with negative searches. Google’s apology sends an ominous message about the Indian government’s policy toward dissent – much like the incident concerning a student body in IIT Madras that was banned by the Ministry of Human Resources for criticizing the PM last week.