Yesterday an innocent Google search for the “Top 10 Criminals” caused controversy online.
Alongside gangster Al Capone and famed terrorist Dawood Ibrahim appears a picture of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The internet erupted in criticism of Google, forcing the company to apologize to Modi and display a disclaimer alongside results for the search term.
Top 10 Criminals List: Google algorithm behaving correctly
The controversy arose due to the complicated workings of Google’s search algorithm, which ranks every web page according to over 200 factors. Only a select few Google employees know every single one of these factors because it is a highly guarded secret. The algorithm is essentially what makes Google Google, and for that reason it cannot be public knowledge.
However what we do know is that two major factors which affect the ranking of your web page are how many other sites link to your page, and how highly ranked they are. The Modi controversy arose thanks to this exact idea.
Last year The Telegraph published an article with the headline: “Top Indian educationalist accused of racism over portrayal of criminal ‘negroes'” accompanied by an image of Narendra Modi. The metadata for that image read as follows: “India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi : Top Indian educationalist accused of racism over portrayal of criminal ‘negroes'”
The Telegraph is one of the most widely read newspapers in the UK, and the words “Modi” and “criminal” appear very close to each other in the image metadata text. For that reason the image appears when you search for top 10 criminals in Google.
Social media posts only increasing the problem of listing Modi as a criminal
Google is essentially just doing its job and should not be under fire from indignant Modi supporters. Other search engines such as Bing also display the same results.
If you have taken to Twitter to voice your concerns over the linking of Modi and criminals like Osama bin Laden, you may well be making the situation worse.
According to Quartz, over 13,000 Tweets have been posted using the hashtag #Top10Criminals, the majority from angry Indians defending their Prime Minister. By making posts with “Modi” and “Top10Criminals” together, users may actually cause the Google algorithm to associate the two terms even more, said two internet analysts who spoke to the publication on the condition of anonymity.