Rise of the machines: is Google changing history?

Rise of the machines

Rise of the machines

According to the experience of thousands of Australian students, Google might just be changing history.

Back in the day it was my revisionist politics professors who took the blame for rewriting history, especially in early 1990s South Africa. At least their intentions were honourable and they were mindful of what they were doing (that’s not to say everyone agreed with them).

Nowadays, however, it seems that it is possible to change history accidentally, carelessly, maliciously or just for fun. We’re told by the poster child of crowdsourced information, Wikipedia, that the system has the ability to heal itself and, to be fair, their track record with winkling out hoaxes is not too bad and they are very open about the ones they have missed. But as open as Wikipedia is, it does have an army of vigilant and proactive volunteers policing the site – as anyone who has tried to add a Wikipedia page will know.

What happens in the wild open information wilderness of Google, however? As mentioned, in the case of a recent Australian exam paper, Google really can rewrite history. To demonstrate, a quick game of spot the difference:

Exhibit A: A picture of the painting entitled “Storming of the Winter Palace” by Nikolai Kochergin, depicting a pivotal moment in the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Storming of the Winter Palace

Exhibit B: Here’s another version of the same painting that was used to illustrate a grade 12 exam question on Russian history.

Storming of the Winter Palace Robots

[Image source for both]

Notice the difference?

Now, as any Terminator fan knows, Skynet only flips its lid leading to the rise of the machines in 1997, so it is unlikely that a robot would be playing a key role (or any role at all, for that matter) in the Russian Revolution in 1917. Even less likely a 31st century BattleTech Marauder robot, which is what is pictured.

But, a teacher’s Google search for an image of the painting resulted in what io9 gleefully calls an example of popular photoshopperie turning up in the exam paper, rather than the original. Of course, now, in some sort of post-modern meta-ness, the incorrect image ranks the highest thanks to people reporting on this story. Go figure.

So what happens in a few months or year’s time, when we’ve forgotten all about the time we spent chuckling over the photoshopped pics of Hurricane Sandy, and a busy visuals editor does a Google search and grabs this one for a news broadcast.

Hurricane Sandy Fail

[Image credit]

Looks legit right? Even has a news banner. But unfortunately it is footage from the movie The Day After Tomorrow. But repeated often enough by supposedly reputable sources — news broadcasts, exam papers etc. — a fake can take on the patina of truth, and re-write history. I’d argue that order of magnitude is not really relevant either: tiny hilarious oopsies pave the way for enormous cover-ups and whitewashes.

From sharks in Manhattan to scuba divers in the subway to flooded McDonald’s, this overview in The Atlantic shows how many shades of fake there in fact are. Some pics are real, just not taken in New York or at the time, some are clever composites that look plausible, some are clever composites that you just want to be true (the sharks and the scuba diver, for instance), some are probably real but unverified, some are real, and some are clearly fake (Cheshire Cat presiding over NYC, anyone?).

Judging by the number of hoax email, Facebook posts and other online hokum that does the rounds daily, despite being debunked years ago, we have an insatiable appetite for this stuff, and, thanks to the web’s state of eternal September, new online arrivals exacerbate the problem by sharing what has previously been disproven. Too few people head over to sites such as Snopes or Is Twitter Wrong to double-check the veracity of something before passing on. More worryingly people who should know better or have a professional obligation to track down a verified source are treating Google as if it were that source. The io9 article mentioned above includes a particularly blush-worthy blunder in a Denver TV broadcast about the Petraeus affair.

Back to the Australian school children. According to a report in The Age, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) the altered picture shouldn’t impact on the answer to the exam question, but the answers will be monitored and students who have been “distracted” by the image won’t be disadvantaged. Here’s hoping at least one student included in their answer the importance of checking your facts.



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