Google on torture: the world is still divided

A poster promoting the UN Women ad campaign investigating sexism on Google (image supplied by UN Women)

A poster promoting the UN Women ad campaign investigating sexism on Google (image supplied by UN Women)

Inspired by the brilliant but appalling UN Women ad campaign we’ve decided to find out what Google, or its infamous algorithm, says about torture.

Type “torture is…” or “torture should…” and the results, calculated after a few milliseconds, are abysmal yet unsurprising – the world is still divided. “Torture is justified” and “torture should be legal” are followed by “torture is wrong” and “torture should be banned.” Fortunately, “torture is ineffective” comes right before “torture is good”.

What does the algorithm tell us about specific methods of torture? Believe it or not, “waterboarding is baptizing terrorists with freedom”. Absurdities aside, the two top results, again, were predictable: “waterboarding isn’t torture” comes right before “waterboarding is torture.”

We know very well that data on torture is difficult to get, and few polls measure the public opinion toward torture. Although Google’s autocomplete isn’t a perfect picture of the reality it scarily hints to it.

In an article published earlier this year about sympathies towards torture in the United States, Amy Zegart writes:

“Americans are significantly more pro-torture now than during the Bush years. In 2007, 27 percent of Americans surveyed in a Rasmussen poll said the United States should torture prisoners captured in the war against terrorism. In an August 2012 YouGov national poll I commissioned, 41 percent said they approved of torture, a gain of 14 points.”

The poll results are not too distant from the algorithm’s result. One negative result followed one positive shows that public opinion is highly polarised. As explained by Arwa Mahdawi in the Guardian, Google’s autocomplete feature anticipates what you’re looking for, based on what other people have searched for in the past.

She also explains that, “autocomplete suggestions differ according to variables such as region and time, but there tends to be a degree of consistency across results.” Try it out. Then let us know what’s like in your part of the world.


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