It’s one thing to see pictures of Android mascots urinating or references to Edward Snowden on Google Maps, it’s quite another to see it used as a tool of racism. That’s what happened this afternoon as selected racist queries on Google Maps point to the Obama White House.
The story comes from several sources but is laid out in the Washington Post. I couldn’t reproduce the all the results being discussed but when I searched on “n— king, Washington DC” the White House is the result.
Apologizing for the recent spate of problems, but especially this one, Google offered the following official comment:
Some inappropriate results are surfacing in Google Maps that should not be, and we apologize for any offense this may have caused. Our teams are working to fix this issue quickly.
Google had previously shut down Map Maker to try and prevent just these sorts of problems and mapspam from arising. But these examples are not related to Map Maker, Google tells us.
Google deals with scores of hack attempts on Maps all the time and it prevents the majority from showing up. However when one like this gets though it gets a great deal of attention and serves to encourage copy cats. In the absence of the urinating mascot and Snowden incidents this unfortunate episode might not have happened.
Postscript (May 19): Either the same racist hacker has struck again or it’s a copycat. According to a post by Bryan Seely, this historically black Howard University now shows up as “N–er University” in Google Maps.
Postscript 2 (May 20, 3:30pm ET): As the Huffington Post points out, a different spelling of the N-word will bring up the White House on Google Maps. We’ve verified this still works. Entering that word plus “house” into Google Maps, even from California, zooms directly into the White House:
We’ve also updated the date on our story from May 19, to reflect changes since we originally published.
Postscript 3 (4pm ET): We’re investigating further with Google to better understand exactly how this happened. It doesn’t appear to be something an edit that Map Maker could have caused, but we’re checking.
If not, then what did happen? One thing is that with the White House, it could simply be that the White House will rank for any term that uses the word “House” in it, if you are in the Washington DC area or have your map set to that location.
For example, testing with a slur against Asians will bring the White House up. Searching for “bulls**t house” also brings it up (in the Los Angeles area, that ranks the Coachella music festival as a top listing).
Another thing that could be happening is that because of Google’s use of web-wide data for local results, part of its Pigeon Update last year, references people make across the web could be influencing how local sites are ranking. For example, a search for a slur against Latinos plus “house” in the DC area brings up Hispanic Link DC.
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