Google Maps Removes Racist, Anti-Obama Slurs

Photo: Courtesy Google.
Google had to fix a major snafu last week: Map searches for racist slurs were pulling up the White House as a location destination. 

If you searched for some phrases including the N-word, like "n**** king" or "n**** house," the White House would show up in the results, as well as locations like Howard University, a historically Black school. In a post on Google's Lat Long, the company's blog devoted to its mapping function, Google apologized for the offensive "mess up," and elaborated on how it was working to fix the issue.

"Certain offensive search terms were triggering unexpected maps results, typically because people had used the offensive term in online discussions of the place," Google's VP of engineering & product management Jen Fitzpatrick wrote in the post. "This surfaced inappropriate results that users likely weren’t looking for."

But how did those offensive searches pull up these locations in the first place? Google's search and mapping algorithms are incredibly smart. As you've probably experienced, even broad or vague search queries pull up exactly what you're looking for — if enough people have entered similar search terms in the past. But, therein lies the problem: If a number of hateful people search a specific phrase and select a specific result, the two become tied together even if there shouldn't be a correlation.

Google also correlates these connections based on chatter happening around the web. So, as WIRED, concisely put it: Google Maps appears racist because of racists on the internet. Because people are repeatedly and regularly using racial slurs in blog posts and searches tied to President Obama and the White House, Google's algorithms tied them together. 

Google first started encountering this issue — what it calls "Googlebombs" or "linkbombs" — back in 2007. Googlebombing happens when people try to cause a site to rank in Google for a search query not actually related to it. One of the most famous examples of a Googlebomb occurred when users searching for the term "miserable failure" were directed to George W. Bush's biography. Google subsequently created an algorithm specifically to combat the practice.

The search giant is now building on the original algorithm used to fight Googlebombs in order to fight the similar problem cropping up with Maps results. Unfortunately, this isn't the first offensive issue Maps has dealt with lately. Google also recently shut down its Map Maker tool after a variety of hacks, obscene edits, and spam started surfacing (including an Android mascot peeing on an Apple logo, labeled as a "park," in Pakistan). 

If you ever spot abuse of Google's services like this, be sure to report it so the company can address it. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.
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