We won’t remove holocaust denial, says Google

Word of dishonour: Holocaust denial is banned in over a dozen nations, most of them European.

Google is facing calls to remove prominent neo-Nazi pages from its search results. The company argues that censorship is beyond its remit. What is Google’s relationship with news?

Here is a fact: the Holocaust happened. There is overwhelming evidence that at least six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Any historian who says otherwise is not taken seriously. In some countries, denial is a crime.

Here is another: if you ask Google ‘did the Holocaust happen?’, the first answer is ‘no’. At the time of writing, the first hit is a page called ‘Top 10 reasons why the Holocaust didn’t happen’, from a white supremacist site called Stormfront. Scroll down, and you find plenty more articles like it.

This has not passed the media by. In the last few days, journalists and campaigners have called on Google to remove the article from the search results. But the tech firm is standing firm. ‘We are saddened to see that hate organizations still exist,’ said a spokesperson, before adding that its results reflect the information available on the internet.

The criticism comes at a sensitive time for the company. Since the US election, Google – together with social media giants like Facebook – has come under fire for hosting fake news and right-wing propaganda. At one point, Google was promoting a report that Donald Trump had won the popular vote: a lie.

This matters. Some 1.8 billion people use Facebook each month. Google processes 40,000 searches per second; there is evidence that its rankings influence politics. Yet the companies insist that censorship is a slippery slope. ‘Identifying the “truth” is complicated,’ said Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg. ‘We must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth.’

Google is no stranger to censorship. It often removes articles as required by the laws of the countries it operates in. In Germany and France, it has taken action against neo-Nazi websites. It blocked all manner of things in China before pulling out of the country in 2010. Child porn is off limits everywhere.

But in the USA, Holocaust denial is legal. The company is not obliged to remove the offending article. Is that a good enough excuse?

Do the right thing

Yes, say some. Google, like Facebook, is not the BBC. Its job is not to create news, but to reflect what people read. If people are questioning the Holocaust, the search engine should show this. Of course, it must not break the law. But beyond this, it cannot start judging what counts as ‘wrong’ news. That would be a sinister abuse of its power.

Rubbish, reply others. Whether they like it or not, Google and Facebook are now the two most influential news sources in the world. They don’t reflect public opinion: they shape it. The companies have a moral duty not to spread misinformation, legal or otherwise. Google’s motto is ‘Do the right thing’ – it should take its own advice.

You Decide

  1. Has Google made the world a better place?
  2. Should Holocaust denial be illegal?

Activities

  1. As a class, Google the following questions, then discuss whether the first page of hits gives an appropriate response. ‘Is climate change real?’ ‘Is Brexit good?’ ‘Should we eat meat?’
  2. Using the articles in Become An Expert and others as sources, list the five main arguments of Holocaust deniers. For each, write a paragraph explaining why it is wrong.

Some People Say...

“Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.”

Mark Twain

What do you think?

Q & A

Should I stop using Google?
No need to go that far. The search engine is not only useful, it is practically unavoidable. When looking at search results, however, you could ask yourself: do I know these websites? Who runs them? Are they reliable?
How does Google rank results?
Nobody really knows: a complex, secret algorithm does the work. Key factors include the website’s location (compared to your own) and the number of other websites that link to it. The algorithm is designed to give priority to respected websites.
Shouldn’t this system keep out dodgy sites, then?
Unfortunately, a website can be unethical but still popular enough to climb the rankings. That said, the algorithm works to an extent: fake news travels more easily on Facebook, where ordinary users decide what gets shared.

Word Watch

White supremacist
One who believes that whites are innately superior to other races.
Stormfront
Founded in 1995 by a former Ku Klux Klan boss, Stormfront was the first major hate website. It has over 300,000 registered users.
Fake news
Stories that are fabricated and passed off as real news. This sets fake news apart from satire, which is not meant to be taken literally. See Become An Expert.
A lie
Hillary Clinton currently has 2.8m more votes than Trump – the biggest margin for a loser in American history.
Evidence
Psychologist Robert Epstein has found that manipulation of search results can sway voters by up to 80%. Google has criticised his research. See Become An Expert.
Pulling out
China has extensive censorship laws. Google complied with them for four years, but eventually shut down its Chinese operation after it fell victim to a cyber-attack.
Legal
The USA, UK and other countries view banning Holocaust denial as a violation of the right to free speech.
Do the right thing
Technically, this is the motto of Google’s parent company Alphabet. Google’s old motto is ‘Don’t be evil’.