online influence

Is Google’s eagerness to answer questions actually promoting more falsehood online?

The engine’s search algorithm uses more than 200 factors to figure out how to prioritise results so as to give users the information they’re looking for.

When people have questions, they often ask Google. They expect high-quality, accurate answers. Late last year, it emerged that the top answer Google gave to “Did the Holocaust happen?” linked to a neo-Nazi, white supremacist, Holocaust-denying website.

The ensuing outcry included people buying Google ads for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum so that it would appear near the top of the results as well. After initial resistance, Google tweaked its algorithm – but only enough to push the false, prejudiced information somewhat farther down in the results.

These responses, however, miss a crucial element of the interplay between the tactics of Holocaust deniers’ tactics (and conspiracy theorists more broadly) and Google’s search algorithm. Google wants to answer questions, and is often very good at it. But when the question itself has a hidden or implicit agenda, like expressing doubt about historical facts, the urge to answer that question shifts from a strength to a weakness.

Sowing doubts about the historical record is the bread and butter of Holocaust denial, and conspiracy theories more broadly. These illegitimate sites claim to be innocently curious, “just asking questions” about historical events and widely held beliefs. They are, of course, much more nefarious, seeking to spread anti-Semitism and right-wing hate.

As a scholar of political sociology and the Holocaust, it’s clear to me that sites intentionally presenting misinformation and propaganda are preying upon Google’s eagerness to answer questions. These sites, peddling what is sometimes called “fake news,” capitalize on people’s tendency to ask those questions directly on Google. This is one important example of the real-world effects of how algorithms are written. Human programmers need to be aware that there can be actual social consequences when they write what can seem like dry, straightforward code.

Many sites don’t answer the question

In this May 1945 image, a U.S. soldier dips his hands into a crate full of rings confiscated from prisoners in Buchenwald.  National Archives and Records Administration
In this May 1945 image, a U.S. soldier dips his hands into a crate full of rings confiscated from prisoners in Buchenwald. National Archives and Records Administration

First, and very importantly: Of course the Holocaust happened. There are mountains of evidence proving it happened. The perpetrators admitted to it. There are documents outlining the transport and extermination process. There is forensic evidence from the extermination sites. And there is abundant corroborating eyewitness testimony.

But code matters: Google’s search algorithm uses more than 200 factors to figure out how to prioritize results so as to give users the information they’re looking for. One of the first things it looks at is how well the site’s content responds to the specific inquiry.

For example, if a person searches for “running shoes,” Google doesn’t know, from the query, exactly what about running shoes the person is hoping to learn. So it will offer results ranging from reviews of running shoes to places selling running shoes.

But asking whether the Holocaust happened is the equivalent of asking “Did World War II happen?” Understandably, legitimate sites don’t typically engage with the idea that it might not have. Despite being filled with detailed discussions of what, when, where, why, how and to whom the Holocaust happened, the most authoritative sites on the history of the Holocaust don’t address this one direct underlying question: Did it happen? They know it did, and elaborate from there.

However, this appears to suggest to Google’s algorithm that those sites don’t have the most relevant information to answer the specific question a searcher is asking.

This problem is amplified because Google’s algorithm attempts to evaluate sites’ credibility when determining where to include them in search results. When reputable sites don’t seem to provide the answer, less trusted sources that offer direct – though false – responses are able to rise to the top of the search results.

Making matters worse, the algorithm uses machine learning to offer related suggestions about what the searcher might be looking for, even if they don’t use the exact search terms. An initial query premised on Holocaust denial will trigger the system to provide more options like it.

A way for experts to respond

Taken together, the way that deniers frame questions and the Google algorithm’s desire to answer specific questions combine into a recipe for spreading conspiracy theories across the internet. However, Google’s emphasis on credibility means that experts have avenues for addressing these issues: public writing, blogging and linking to factually accurate work.

The results as of Jan. 4 at 1:30 p.m Eastern time. Screenshot, CC BY-SA
The results as of Jan. 4 at 1:30 p.m Eastern time. Screenshot, CC BY-SA

If the Holocaust Museum were to write an article titled “Did the Holocaust happen?” and provide some basic facts, the content and the site’s credibility would move it to the top of the search results. Its current page confronting Holocaust denial could even be quickly modified to add a line saying “Often this denial comes in the form of a question: ‘Did the Holocaust happen?’” That would introduce the keywords that could boost the existing page’s relevance to Google’s algorithm. (Whether due to additional tweaking on Google’s part, or its algorithm’s response to news coverage, Holocaust Museum content is, as of this writing, much more prominently displayed in Google’s results.)

To be sure, this will not eliminate Holocaust denier websites from Google’s search results entirely, and perhaps not even from the first page of them. Nor will it deter dedicated deniers from finding information that supports their preconceived notions about history. Holocaust denial is based on a selective interpretation of the historical record and deep-seated anti-Semitic beliefs. No website will correct or uproot these beliefs in one fell swoop.

However, offering accurate information alongside false information may give individuals who have yet to internalize these beliefs pause. And it suggests a useful path to those who seek to disseminate truth and fact in the face of denial and conspiracy theories.

Thomas Maher, Postdoctoral Researcher in Sociology, University of Arizona.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Top picks, best deals and all that you need to know for the Amazon Great Indian Festival

We’ve done the hard work so you can get right to what you want amongst the 40,000+ offers across 4 days.

The Great Indian Festival (21st-24th September) by Amazon is back and it’s more tempting than ever. This edition will cater to everyone, with offers on a range of products from electronics, home appliances, apparel for men and women, personal care, toys, pet products, gourmet foods, gardening accessories and more. With such overwhelming choice of products and a dozen types of offers, it’s not the easiest to find the best deals in time to buy before your find gets sold out. You need a strategy to make sure you avail the best deals. Here’s your guide on how to make the most out of the Great Indian Festival:

Make use of the Amazon trio – Amazon Prime, Amazon Pay and Amazon app

Though the festival officially starts on 21st, Amazon Prime members will have early access starting at 12 noon on 20th September itself, enabling them to grab the best deals first. Sign up for an Amazon Prime account to not miss out on exclusive deals and products. Throughout the festival, Prime members will 30-minute early access to top deals before non-Prime members. At Rs 499/- a year, the Prime membership also brings unlimited Amazon Prime video streaming and quick delivery benefits.

Load your Amazon pay wallet; there’s assured 10% cashback (up to Rs 500). Amazon will also offer incremental cashbacks over and above bank cashbacks on select brands as a part of its Amazon Pay Offers. Shopping from the app would bring to you a whole world of benefits not available to non-app shoppers. App-only deals include flat Rs 1,250 off on hotels on shopping for more than Rs 500, and flat Rs 1,000 off on flights on a roundtrip booking of Rs 5,000 booking from Yatra. Ten lucky shoppers can also win one year of free travel worth Rs 1.5 lakhs.

Plan your shopping

The Great Indian Sale has a wide range of products, offers, flash sales and lightning deals. To make sure you don’t miss out on the best deals, or lose your mind, plan first. Make a list of things you really need or have been putting off buying. If you plan to buy electronics or appliances, do your research on the specs and shortlist the models or features you prefer. Even better, add them to your wishlist so you’re better able to track your preferred products.

Track the deals

There will be lightning deals and golden hour deals throughout the festival period. Keep track to avail the best of them. Golden-hour deals will be active on the Amazon app from 9.00pm-12.00am, while Prime users will have access to exclusive lightning deals. For example, Prime-only flash sales for Redmi 4 will start at 2.00pm and Redmi 4A at 6.00pm on 20th, while Nokia 6 will be available at Rs 1,000 off. There will be BOGO Offers (Buy One Get One free) and Bundle Offers (helping customers convert their TVs to Smart TVs at a fraction of the cost by using Fire TV Stick). Expect exclusive product launches from brands like Xiaomi (Mi Band 2 HRX 32 GB), HP (HP Sprocket Printer) and other launches from Samsung and Apple. The Half-Price Electronics Store (minimum 50% off) and stores offering minimum Rs 15,000 off will allow deal seekers to discover the top discounts.

Big discounts and top picks

The Great Indian Festival is especially a bonanza for those looking to buy electronics and home appliances. Consumers can enjoy a minimum of 25% off on washing machines, 20% off on refrigerators and 20% off on microwaves, besides deals on other appliances. Expect up to 40% off on TVs, along with No-Cost EMI and up to Rs 20,000 off on exchange.

Home Appliances

Our top picks for washing machines are Haier 5.8 Kg Fully Automatic Top Loading at 32% off, and Bosch Fully Automatic Front Loading 6 Kg and 7 Kg, both available at 27% discount. Morphy Richards 20 L Microwave Oven will be available at a discount of 38%.

Our favorite pick on refrigerators is the large-sized Samsung 545 L at 26% off so you can save Rs 22,710.

There are big savings to be made on UV water purifiers as well (up to 35% off), while several 5-star ACs from big brands will be available at greater than 30% discount. Our top pick is the Carrier 1.5 Ton 5-star split AC at 32% off.

Personal Electronics

There’s good news for Apple fans. The Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch Laptop 2017 will be available at Rs 55,990, while the iPad will be available at 20% off. Laptops from Lenovo, Dell and HP will be available in the discount range of 20% to 26%. Top deals are Lenovo Tab3 and Yoga Tab at 41% to 38% off. Apple fans wishing to upgrade to the latest in wearable technology can enjoy Rs 8,000 off on the Apple Watch series 2 smartwatch.

If you’re looking for mobile phones, our top deal pick is the LG V20 at Rs 24,999, more than Rs 5000 off from its pre-sale price.

Power banks always come in handy. Check out the Lenovo 13000 mAh power bank at 30% off.

Home printers are a good investment for frequent flyers and those with kids at home. The discounted prices of home printers at the festival means you will never worry about boarding passes and ID documents again. The HP Deskjet basic printer will be available for Rs 1,579 at 40% off and multi-function (printer/ scanner/ Wi-Fi enabled) printers from HP Deskjet and Canon will also available at 33% off.

The sale is a great time to buy Amazon’s native products. Kindle E-readers and Fire TV Stick will be on sale with offers worth Rs 5,000 and Rs 1,000 respectively.

The Amazon Fire Stick
The Amazon Fire Stick

For those of you who have a bottomless collection of movies, music and photos, there is up to 60% off on hard drives and other storage devices. Our top picks are Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 off on Seagate Slim 5TB and 4TB hard drives respectively, available from 8.00am to 4.00pm on 21st September.

The sale will see great discounts of up to 60% off on headphones and speakers from the top brands. The 40% off on Bose QC 25 Headphones is our favourite. Top deals are on Logitech speakers with Logitech Z506 Surround Sound 5.1 multimedia Speakers at 60% off and Logitech X300 Bluetooth Speaker at 58% off!

Other noteworthy deals

Cameras (up to 55% off) and camera accessories such as tripods, flash lights etc. are available at a good discount. Home surveillance cameras too will be cheaper. These include bullet cameras, dome cameras, simulated cameras, spy cameras and trail and game cameras.

For home medical supplies and equipment, keep an eye on the grooming and personal care section. Weighing scales, blood pressure monitors, glucometers, body fat monitors etc. will be available at a cheaper price.

The sale is also a good time to invest in home and kitchen supplies. Mixer-grinders and juicers could see lightning deals. Don’t ignore essentials like floor mops with wheels, rotating mop replacements, utensils, crockery etc. Tupperware sets, for example, will be more affordable. There are attractive discounts on bags, especially laptop bags, backpacks, diaper bags and luggage carriers.

Interesting finds

While Amazon is extremely convenient for need-based shopping and daily essentials, it is also full of hidden treasures. During the festival, you can find deals on telescopes, polaroid cameras, smoothie makers, gym equipment, gaming consoles and more. So you’ll be able to allow yourself some indulgences!

Small shopping

If you have children, the festival is good time to stock up on gifts for Diwali, Christmas, return gifts etc. On offer are gaming gadgets such as Xbox, dough sets, Touching Tom Cat, Barbies, classic board games such as Life and more. There are also some products that you don’t really need, but kind of do too, such as smartphone and tablet holders, magnetic car mounts for smartphones and mobile charging station wall stands. If you’re looking for enhanced functionality in daily life, do take a look at the Amazon Basics page. On it you’ll find USB cables, kitchen shears, HDMI cables, notebooks, travel cases and other useful things you don’t realise you need.

Check-out process and payment options

Amazon is also offering an entire ecosystem to make shopping more convenient and hassle-free. For the festival duration, Amazon is offering No-Cost EMIs (zero interest EMIs) on consumer durables, appliances and smartphones, plus exchange schemes and easy installation services in 65 cities. HDFC card holders can avail additional 10% cashback on HDFC credit and debit cards. Customers will also get to “Buy Now and Pay in 2018” with HDFC Credit Cards, as the bank offers a 3 Month EMI Holiday during the days of the sale. Use Amazon Pay balance for fast and easy checkouts, quicker refunds and a secured shopping experience.

Sales are fun and with The Great Indian Festival offering big deals on big brands, it definitely calls for at least window shopping. There’s so much more than the above categories, like minimum 50% off on American Tourister luggage! To start the treasure hunt, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon.in and not by the Scroll editorial team.