Big tech companies are always trying to outdo each other and make our lives easier. We’re not talking much of a difference, however. A few seconds saved here versus a smoother experience there makes all the difference. The tiny things count and have a big impact on where our loyalties end up. You might choose Google over Bing, for example, because it auto-completes your queries as you type them into the search box.
Always thinking about the fine edges can leave these tech companies exposed where it matters, though. It happened to Microsoft recently, with the roll-out of its Windows 10 October 2018 update. The update can only be seen as an evolution of the operating system rather than a revolution. It sprinkles on a few updated features across the whole OS instead of providing a big bang in just one place.
Despite the modest offering, the update has been an unmitigated disaster for Microsoft with some users reporting their files and folders going missing after they’d installed it. Microsoft didn’t take care of the basics and it led to problems. This has led to anti-maccers, like myself, secretly thinking that Apple would never have let anything like that happen. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the Windows 10 October update isn’t the only disaster it has faced recently.
Microsoft Bing has been serving up “horrifying” results, and racist tropes and memes when people search for certain words and phrases
A recent investigation by journalist Chris Hoffman discovered that Microsoft’s search engine Bing often suggests racist and disgusting content for innocent search terms.
“Search for ‘jews’ on Bing Images and Bing suggests you search for ‘Evil Jew.’ The top results also include a meme that appears to celebrate dead Jewish people… Clicking the suggested search unleashes a torrent of racist, antisemitic content, with more suggested searches like ‘Jewish People Are Evil,’ ‘The Evil Jewish Race,’ and ‘Why Are Jews so Evil.’”
What’s worse is that Hoffman discovered all of this while he had Bing’s SafeSearch option enabled. SafeSearch is supposed to keep adult-themed content out of your search results.
The racism continues across other ethnic groups, but the Bing scandal goes further. The search engine was also found to serve up commonly debunked conspiracy theories and even suggest searches for images of underage children based off an innocent search for a grill. Not a good look at all for a futuristic tech company.
All of this, however, does not mean that Bing is a racist (or worse) search engine or that Microsoft is a racist company. The company has been quick to respond to the findings of Hoffman’s investigation and it was Microsoft itself that described the Bing search results as “horrifying.” In response to Hoffman’s findings Jeff Jones, who is a senior director at Microsoft said, “We take matters of offensive content very seriously and continue to enhance our systems to identify and prevent such content from appearing as a suggested search.” Basically, Microsoft is appalled by the findings of Hoffman’s report and is working to put things right.
In fact, Google has had similar problems in the past, with its search engine auto-completing queries to ask racist questions and serving up sites denying the Holocaust ever took place.
The reason that problems like this can strike search engines is because their algorithms respond to user behavior. This makes it possible for groups to push their own agenda across search engines through a coordinated effort.
We’ve seen fake news spread across networks like Facebook and messaging services like WhatsApp. We’ve also seen culture wars break out across platforms like Twitter and we’re even seeing that seemingly harmless online tools like search engines can be bent to the will of politically minded people.
All of these online platforms are changing our lives for the better in ways that we could never have imagined just a few years ago. They’re also, however, opening up new means of population control and manipulation that the people building them seem completely unprepared to deal with. It is worrying to think how many people could be affected by a supposedly trustworthy source serving up lies and untruths designed to promote a certain political agenda. These are great yet dangerous times we’re living in.
Of course, Bing is not a racist search engine and Microsoft is not a racist organization. If, however, you’re trying to change the world by making it easier for everybody in it to connect with each other, not being racist isn’t enough. You need to actively be anti-racist and work to close off the pathways you’re creating for those who are looking to exploit any means they can to push their particular agenda. If you’re not trying to do that, or you’re not clever enough to do it efficiently enough then, in the end, you’ll be judged as a part of the problem. The likes of Microsoft, Facebook, Google need to know this. They need to try harder.