This statement was originally published on advox.globalvoices.org on 16 January 2018. It is republished here under Creative Commons license CC-BY 3.0.
Russia's presidential elections are two months away, and while there are multiple contenders, the expectation is that Vladimir Putin will secure a fourth term handily.
On January 15, 2018 in what looked like an effort to save time or skip the nail-biting drama of counting votes on election night, Google declared Putin the winner of the March 2018 election.
A Russian-language Google search of "elections 2018" resulted in the usual snapshot of the analogous Wikipedia article. Under "winner" there appeared a portrait of Vladimir Putin, as seen here.
This curious error came about thanks to Google's search result technology, which sometimes features information that is intended to help answer the user's query. With searches like this, such information typically comes from either Wikipedia or official state government websites that Google deems to be reliable.
But in this case, the Russian Wikipedia article on the 2018 elections was anything but.
Stanislav Kozlovsky, the director for the Russian department of Wikimedia, Wikipedia's parent company, explained the error in a comment to RBC, a Russian business news website:
Someone added Putin's name to the preamble of the article on the elections, after which the search engine indexed it and reflected the new variant in its results.
Wikipedia is known for its crowd-sourcing model, through which volunteer users can make substantive contributions after completing a vetting process. While they can vary from language to language, all Wikipedia sites have standard procedures in place to prevent inaccuracies like this one. But it appears that these procedures were not followed for the Russian version of the page. Whether the error was intended as a joke, or as a political move, is unknown.
The error was corrected within 20 minutes, but this was more than enough time to spawn some humorous reactions, such as this tongue-in-cheek reference:
Someone call Senator Pushkov. Using Google, the Americans have interfered in our elections, putting forth a candidate that will be favorable for them.
Зовите сенатора Пушкова. Американцы через Google вмешались в наши выборы, продвигая выгодного для себя кандидата. pic.twitter.com/IFDbL149g0— La Russie parle (@Russia_calls) January 14, 2018
Alexey Pushkov, a Russian senator who sits on the Council of the Federation's committee for defense and security, is known for his frequent and hawkish tweets both dismissing allegations of Russia's interference in other countries' affairs and decrying foreign (especially US) interference in Russia's.
Although it is unlikely that many users took this seriously, the incident is symptomatic of some much larger problems.
It raises the question of how Google decides what sources are reliable enough to be featured such that they purport to "answer" questions posed in a search query. While Wikipedia may be a stronger and less controversial choice than any major news outlet, it is still subject to errors like these. Official government websites can also offer a significantly skewed version of facts. This error might prompt Google to reconsider whether this type of featuring might create more problems than it solves.
Assuming that Google and other search engines continue to show results in this way, the incident also raises questions about trust in web platforms when it comes to news and information. A significant percentage of young Russians use the Internet for news, though they are in the minority when compared to the population as a whole, who by-and-large still rely on television.
As internet penetration rises in Russia, one can expect these numbers to climb. From Brazil, to Indonesia to the US, more and more people of all age groups are starting to shift or have shifted to using web platforms as their main source of news and information. This means that people will increasingly expect search results, social media feeds and other automated information tools to give us accurate information about the world around us. If something so simple as a Wikipedia error can spawn a cascade of misinformation about something so important as a presidential election, there may be more trouble ahead.
In response to arguments about the need to combat disinformation and "fake news", media analyst Nina Jankowicz suggests we take a long-term approach and push to develop the critical thinking skills of users.
This may or may not succeed, depending on where one lives and how one is taught to use the internet. But luckily for anyone who ran into this search result, it didn't take much critical thinking to see that this was nothing more than a great big error.
Written by Christopher Moldes