The Washington Post

Google’s search tool incorrectl­y classifies the Mueller report as ‘fiction’

Incident highlights tech giant’s fallibilit­y; display is fixed after Post inquiry

- BY DREW HARWELL drew.harwell@washpost.com

People who searched on Google for the Mueller report have been told the document is “fiction,” a baffling falsehood that highlights the fallibilit­y of and threat of misinforma­tion from the world’s most influentia­l search engine.

Searches for “Mueller Report,” which details the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigat­ion into Russian interferen­ce and President Trump’s conduct in the 2016 election, showed an informatio­n box at the top of the results that classified the 448-page report’s genre as “fiction.”

In response to questions from The Washington Post, Google said the search result was an error and would be fixed shortly. The company did not say why the search tool returned that result, how long that answer had been there, or how many people had been shown the false result.

By 1 p.m. Monday, a few hours after The Post notified Google, the search had been corrected to call the report “non-fiction.”

Google is the Internet’s most visited website and the starting point for most searches online. The “fiction” classifica­tion was found in an informatio­n box from Google’s Knowledge Graph, which relies on software to automatica­lly generate potentiall­y relevant context or informatio­n.

The Knowledge Graph system, unveiled in 2012, has been criticized for returning false informatio­n and for giving few details as to where its answers come from.

Google spokeswoma­n Lara Levin said in a statement to The Post: “The Knowledge Graph is our systems’ understand­ing of the people, places and things in the world. While we strive to always present accurate informatio­n, errors can occur. When we’re made aware of inaccuraci­es, we work to fix them quickly.”

The Google algorithms scour a vast range of online sources, such as news sites and Wikipedia, making it difficult to know where the false informatio­n first arose. The Wikipedia page for the Mueller document calls it an official report.

The search error comes amid a growing tide of distrust for tech giants in Washington, where lawmakers have questioned whether websites are doing enough to tamp down misinforma­tion.

The Mueller report has become both a political battlefiel­d and a popular search topic by the general public. Print editions of the free report, sold by The Washington Post and other publishers, have climbed in bestseller lists.

But Google and its video giant YouTube have sometimes offered an inconsiste­nt portrayal of the probe.

In April, one week after the Mueller report was revealed, YouTube automatica­lly sent hundreds of thousands of recommenda­tions to viewers that they watch a video decrying the investigat­ion as a conspiracy theory. The video was created by RT America, the U.S.-focused division of the media network funded by the Russian government.

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