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
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.