Unintended Consequences to Google Context Cards on Conspiracy Videos?

I was putting together materials for my online media literacy class and I was about to pull this video, which has half a million views and proposes that AIDS is the “greatest lie of the 21st century.” According to the video, HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, retrovirals do (I think that was the point, I honestly began to tune out).

But then I noticed one of the touches that Google has added recently: a link to a respectable article on the subject of AIDS. This is a technique that has some merit: don’t censor, but show clear links to more authoritative sources that provide better information.

At least that’s what I thought before I saw it in practice. Now I’m not sure. Take a look at what this looks like:


I’m trying to imagine my students parsing this page, and I can’t help but think without a flag to indicate this video is dangerously wrong that students will see the encyclopedic annotation and assume (without reading it of course) that it makes this video more trustworthy.  It’s clean looking, it’s got a link to Encyclopedia Britannica, and what my own work with students and what Sam Wineburg’s research has shown is that these features may contribute to a “page gestalt” that causes the students to read this as more authoritative, not less — even if the text at the link directly contradicts the video. It’s quite possible that the easiness on the eyes and the presence of an authoritative link calms the mind, and opens it to the stream of bullshit coming from this guy’s mouth.

Maybe I’m wrong. It seems a fairly easy thing to test, and I assume they tested it. But it’s also possible that when these things get automated the things you thought were edge conditions turn out to be much more the norm than anticipated. In this case, the text that forms that paragraph from Britannica is on “AIDS”, not “AIDS denialism”, and as such the text rebuttal probably has less impact than the page gestalt.

I get the same feeling from this one about the Holocaust:


What a person probably needs to know here is not this summary of what the Holocaust was. The context card here functions, on a brief scan, like a label, and the relevant context of this video is not really the Holocaust, but Holocaust denialism, who promotes it, and why.

Again, I hope I’m wrong. Subtle differences in implementation can matter, and maybe my gut on this is just off. It really could be — my job involves watching a lot of people struggle with parsing web pages, and that might warp my perspective.

But it should be easy enough for a researcher to take these examples and see how it works in practice, right? Does anyone know if someone has done that?



6 thoughts on “Unintended Consequences to Google Context Cards on Conspiracy Videos?

  1. How interesting. I suppose Google uses an algorithm to choose the links, but the algorithm isn’t (yet) smart enough to recognize the difference between a Holocaust denial video and a Holocaust video? Do all videos have something like this? I’m curious now. And whether there are ways for the creators to override it, or commentators to suggest differently or….

    • Actually, no — in this case they know it is a conspiracy video — they only show these links on conspiracy videos. But I think the desire to be “fair” has them pointing to an ineffective article with a counterproductive title. FWIW, Google search gets this right, and if you ask did the holocaust happen you get an article not on the Holocaust but on denialism, and it’s not an annotation to supremacist stuff, it’s an alternative. I realize these are two different contexts, but that’s partially the point — I don’t know that you can fight a conspiracy video with a linked text alternative, at least in this format.

      • But if the linked alternative was the same as top Google search…would that be any better? The title that it is a denial implies something i think. If you are saying Google knows it is not credible, could the video get a warning like those bad Wikipedia pages that say “this article may be less credible coz not everything in it is referenced”… or some such…but i realize it is a more complex and subjective case here. How does Google decide these are non-credible videos? Manually?

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  3. I don’t think you’re wrong about the danger of this juxtaposition. Notice that since the factual information is credited, but there is NO source information for the video, it makes it seem to the casual observer as if the whole thing comes from Encyclopedia Britannica!

    I’ve noticed this kind of unintentional misleading recently with a lot of the “cards” that come up on Google searches. There’ll be an image from somewhere paired with a couple sentences from Wikipedia, and the two may not even go together, but it’ll look like the whole thing comes from Wikipedia.

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