For Google and Google News, search ranking and demarcation are everything. It’s complicated to figure out which information users want to see and how to balance that with which information they should see. Google does research about how to deliver better results and sometimes bumps up against the ethical implications of the power it and other search engine developers hold. And when it comes to labeling satire in Google News, the company seems to have some more work to do.
A Slate staffer noticed on Wednesday that when he searched for “benghazi hearings” on Google, a Google News preview called “In the news” came up before the search results, listing three news articles. The problem is that one of the articles, “Benghazi Hearings Cancelled After Clinton Drops Out of Race,” is from the New Yorker’s humor blogger Andy Borowitz. His Borowitz Report is known for a particular brand of news satire, and Google is in on the joke. On full Google News results pages, the company adds the tag “(satire)” under Borowitz Report headlines. But on the main Web result page, the News preview doesn’t show that tag.
As Jon Herrman wrote on the Awl in 2014, “Not always, but frequently, these posts are going to go viral as the result of people who don’t know they’re jokes; as a bonus, every few months, a foreign outlet will aggregate them as if they’re genuine.” This is part of what Herrman calls “the Borowitz Problem.”
Google seems to know how important it is to maintain quality in News results. As publishers have increasingly turned to branded content (that is, content that seems like it was produced with a news site’s usual editorial independence but was actually created because an advertiser commissioned it), Google has been serious about keeping it out of News results. In 2013 Richard Gingras, Google’s senior director of news and social products, wrote on the Google News blog, “Credibility and trust are longstanding journalistic values, and ones which we all regard as crucial attributes of a great news site. … Please remember that like Google search, Google News takes action against sites that violate our quality guidelines.”
At least when it comes to the Borowitz Report, Google News is able to accurately identify satire. But since the service isn’t consistently labeling results as such, it is in danger of perpetuating the Borowitz Problem. It seems like maybe the situation stems from an aesthetic decision or is even just an oversight, but if Google wants to include satire in its news results, the company needs to be careful to attach the label every time. I reached out for comment and will update if I get a response.