Google's Michelle Obama fail

The first lady gets an unflattering online makeover.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 25, 2009 1:26PM (EST)

We thought Google was yanking us a few weeks ago when our search for "bad fathering" turned up some memorable results. (Fortunately, those results have since changed.)

But our minds really got blown when we heard about what happens when you do an image search for Michelle Obama.  

Go ahead and try it. We'll wait.

Yes, the first image that pops up is of the first lady's face morphed with that of a monkey. Stay classy, Google!

The company's go-to excuse for the image – and anything else that might offend you – is on their explanation page:  "We assure you that the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google. Search engines are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet. 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."

Meanwhile, when you go to the Google Blogger hosted 0hot-girls blog, where the image orginally appeared, you get a message from October 21 that reads in very English-as-second-language, "I am very sorry for this article, and that this is the program automatically issued a document from the article. Do not the subject of race and politics make the discussion too radical and sincere hope that the world is very peaceful."

The monkey picture of Mrs. Obama is no longer there – the entry under her name is just a collection of seemingly random recent clips and photos. That appears to be par for the course for the site itself, which is full of trending YouTube clips and pictures of cars and celebrities. That's right, it's just a useless bot blog. Perhaps the fact that the 0hot-girls blog has ads to "Save Today on Jail Calls" and for the "JCBling Girls Club" gives some indication of their target demographic.

So there you have it. It's not Google's fault if a racist image of Michelle Obama turns up in an image search. It's not even the fault of the blog that ran it – after all, it's not much of a flesh and blood endeavor itself. It is however, as one among the hundreds of recent commentors aptly summed up, "just a ploy to get more hits for the site. And unfortunately, it's working."

Yet despite the near total lack of accountability for the whole rather sorry affair, the way that single image – one that at some point was created by a person -- has ignited attention, outrage, and a fair measure of racist attaboys has little to do with algorithms or optimization. What do you get when you combine random technology with a picture of an animal? An entirely human response.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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