Content warning: the following story contains sensitive material regarding racism, anti-Semitism, and the sexualization of minors.
Bing and Yahoo, which is powered by Bing, are both suggesting offensive content within their search features. How-To Geek spotted that Bing’s image search is serving up suggestions for related topics that contain racist terms, the sexualization of minors, and otherwise offensive content. The Verge then found that this problem extends to Yahoo: its homepage search box includes an autocomplete feature that populates racist phrases, and the results often prioritize the company’s Yahoo Answers posts that contain offensive material.
On Bing, the suggestions, called smart suggestion bubbles, appear in a line above the results after conducting an image search. Per How-To Geek’s screencaps, an example search for “Jews” on Bing Images gave smart suggestion bubbles like “dirty Jews,” and “evil Jews.” Clicking through one of those suggested searches recommended additional racist search terms.
Bing’s SafeSearch option is enabled by default, but it failed to block these offensive results. Turning SafeSearch off can deliver other offensive suggestions. Searching images on Bing for “black people are” with SafeSearch off returns suggested follow-up searches of “are stupid,” “are retarded,” and “monkeys.”
In some cases, the top images that are returned are also offensive. According to How-To Geek, the problem is prevalent in Bing’s video search as well. The Verge was able to replicate some of the results, but not all. The problem also extends to searches around other ethnicities.
How-To Geek says that Bing also recommended terms that sexualize minors. When searching for “gril,” Bing then suggested a search for “cute girl young 16.” Clicking through suggested searches for “little girl modeling provocatively,” “cute girls young 13,” and “cute girl young 10.”
These autocomplete suggestions don’t appear when making a regular search through bing.com. However, Bing also powers Yahoo’s search, and the same offensive suggestions that appear in Bing Images show up on Yahoo’s main page.
Additionally, since Yahoo appears to prioritize the community-driven question-and-answer website Yahoo Answers in its search results, the top result for an offensive search can come from an untrustworthy source. Upon searching the first auto-suggested phrase for “black people ar,” The Verge found that the top result is a Yahoo Answers page titled “Are Black People Born Stupid” that contains numerous racist comments. Yahoo then suggests a follow-up search, saying, “Also try: black people are stupid and violent.”
Other search engines like Google have had their brushes with inadvertently promoting offensive content. In 2016, Google addressed the very same issue of autocomplete suggesting “are Jews evil.” That same year, the company faced backlash when the top result for the query “did the Holocaust happen?” came from a white supremacist website. In response, Google changed its Search Quality Rater Guidelines in 2017 in order to tamp down on the spread of offensive or inaccurate search results. A few months later, Google came under fire again for highlighting an offensive meme in the search results for query “gender fluid.”
Google has outlined its policy on inappropriate content for autocomplete, along with a way to report violations. While Bing isn’t as forthcoming, a blog post from Bing in 2013 specifically states that its search auto-suggest tries to remove offensive content. “In addition to processing suggestions,” it says, “we are also running parallel algorithms that filter spam, detect adult or offensive content, check for spelling errors and classify the type of search you are attempting across categories.”
Last year, Bing added fact-checking labels to search results, and Microsoft (which owns and operates Bing) announced new AI features for Bing that are meant to, among other things, better recognize the content of images. The Verge has reached out to Microsoft for comment.