Four US presidents in the KKK? Google’s latest problem with featured answers

If you’re trying to research US presidents who may have been Ku Klux Klan members — don’t believe everything you see on Google. While there appears to be no conclusive evidence any actually were Klan members, Google lists four.

A Google search for “presidents in the klan” returns a featured answer listing four specific US presidents. Technically called a “featured snippet,” this is where Google has so much confidence that the facts from a website are absolutely correct, it elevates the website’s content by displaying it in a special box above all other listings:

The site providing this answer actually took the content from another site that, in turn, appears to be using an article posted in various places across the web, making it difficult to know who, or what site, originally published the content.

Wikipedia — which isn’t perfect but is under constant review by editors — dismisses the charges against presidents Warren G. Harding and Harry S. Truman. The other two, Woodrow Wilson and William McKinley  aren’t discussed.

The failed direct answer came to our attention via Peter Shulman, a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, who tweeted about it after a student cited Google as a reference:

A related search for “presidents in the kkk” gives the same featured answer. A search for “presidents in the ku klux klan” also serves up a featured snippet, but with a slightly different list of US presidents pulled from a different source.

This isn’t the first time one of Google’s featured snippets led users astray. Three years ago, Google claimed Barack Obama was the King of the United States. In June of 2015, a featured snippet pointed users to a religious website for queries asking, “what happened to the dinosaurs.”

Last year, Google gave a one-sided answer to a political question, and elevated an answer for “are women evil” — which resulted in this embarrassment happening on Google Home:

While, technically, this is a different issue than Google’s fight to combat fake news, an argument can be made that Google’s failed featured answers play right into the larger problem around false news sources being widely circulated online.

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