Fooling Google News is this easy

Google News software has no sense of humor

I did it yesterday. Not that I was trying, mind you -- honestly, I wasn't. I did, however, predict it would happen, so I'm going to take this opportunity to gloat about that.

Granted, I have seen this kind of thing before on Google News and have written about it, as have others. This is the first example involving one of my own posts, though.

In a nutshell, Google News cannot tell the difference between real news stories and spoofs, especially when both the real news and the spoof are ostensibly about the same topic. Google News cannot tell the difference because it employs no human editors to pick stories for its front page and because the software it relies upon instead has no sense of humor. (I'm partial to professional editors, both for obvious pocketbook reasons and because they know how to laugh.)

Here's what happened: You probably read of the ill-considered and ultimately futile attempt by Massachusetts transit authorities to stop three MIT students from talking about vulnerabilities in the Bay State's CharlieCard smartcard, which is used for electronic ticketing. When I read that coverage on Saturday it immediately triggered an earworm featuring The Kingston Trio's classic "Charlie on the MTA." The CharlieCard is named in honor of that particular Charlie, who if you're familiar with the lyrics is also known as "the man who never returned."

The combining of the news story and the earworm resulted in this post yesterday: a spoof purporting to be an "exclusive" news story about how those MIT students while investigating the CharlieCard also stumbled upon proof that Charlie, rather than being condemned to an endless ride aboard Boston's notoriously unfriendly subway system, was in fact nothing but a henpecked fraud.

Before posting that bit of whimsy to the World Wide Web, I had a colleague give it a read. I know it might get me kicked out of the blogger's union, but I occasionally have other editors read my stuff before publishing, as much to gauge possible reader reaction as to check my spelling and grammar.

"A fine piece of whimsy," my generous colleague replied via e-mail. "Brace for the idiots who'll think it's serious."

Now I've encountered my share of idiots along the way, but I could not imagine anyone failing to recognize this particular post as a spoof, so I walked over to my friend's office to argue the point.

"I can't see it," I said, "but it won't surprise me if Google News thinks it's serious."

Less than an hour later, my spoof sat atop the knot of 332 news articles about the MIT students -- make that 331 news articles, plus one spoof -- that Google News had grouped together and featured on its front page. And there it sat undisturbed by software or human editorial judgment for a good two hours, after which it and the knot faded into yesterday's news.

Not that I'm complaining -- writers love to have their work featured on Google News; page views and all that -- but I can't help wonder what Google News readers thought when they encountered a spoof instead of what Google News was presenting as the top-of-the-heap news article on this topic. (I know at least one reader was not at all amused.)

In the grand scheme of things, this shortcoming on the part of Google News isn't the least bit important. I recognize that.

Yet every time it happens I can't help but feel just a little bit more secure in the notion that there will always be a place in the news distribution business for human beings. ... At least until software gets a sense of humor.

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Paul McNamara

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