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Google defends Michelle Obama controversy

Algorithms provoke Michelle Obama controversy

The Michelle Obama controversy has illustrated how Google relies on algorithms over human editors to evaluate graphics.

On Tuesday, November 24th 2009, it emerged that a picture of the first lady’s face edited to resemble a monkey had reached top spot on Google Images for the generic keyword ‘Michelle Obama’. Despite widespread calls for the item to be removed from all listings, the search engine refused to back down.

Instead, Google placed an online ad above the Michelle Obama image apologising for any offence caused but stressing that it was the result of automated algorithms. “Search engines are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the internet,” the ad stated. “A site’s ranking in Google’s search results relies heavily on computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page’s relevance to a given query. We apologise if you’ve had an upsetting experience using Google.”

Michelle Obama picture removed

The controversial Michelle Obama picture was apparently posted on Saturday, October 21st by a site called Hot Girls, which is hosted by Google’s Blogger service. Although Google stood its ground, the blog itself subsequently decided to remove the image and publish an apology in Chinese alongside a poorly translated English version.

However, a Google spokesman warned that the image could reappear if it is posted again by other sites. And that appears to have happened, with several blogs reusing the picture to illustrate their reports. The doctored image now tops the listings for a range of keywords on Google Images such as ‘Michelle Obama monkey’, ‘Michelle Obama monkey pic’ and ‘Michelle Obama controversy’.

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