Google Search for Barack Obama Reveals Racial Epithets

By  |  Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 10:37 am

A reader tipped us off to the appearance of racial epithets in searches for Barack Obama on Google. When performing a search for our current president, on the first screenful you’ll be greeted with the N-word. Yep, that one.

Apparently someone went into the Wikipedia entry for President Obama at about 11:44pm ET last night, deleting the entire entry to read the epithet three times over. The wording was in such a position that Google’s crawlers picked it up.

The edit was quickly reversed in two minutes. However it apparently was not fast enough for it not to be crawled by Google’s servers. Below is the screenshot. As this is a family site, the front page version has been edited. A uncensored version is posted after the fold.

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If anything, this goes to strengthen the argument which seems to be brewing lately over whether Wikipedia should become more stringent over who it lets edit its postings.

Incidents like this are a perfect example of why it should happen. If Wikipedia wants to be a reliable resource, it may be time for the site to start vetting its writers. It’s good that people want to help, but there’s people out there who have nothing better to commit than stupid antics like this.

I have a request for comment out to Google and Wikipedia on the situation, but I’m not expecting much other than a canned response.

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19 Comments For This Post

  1. Paul Says:

    For months, Wikipedia administrators have been aware of a study examining the articles of the 100 US senators in a three month period: The article and some conclusions can be found here : http://wikipediareview.com/blog/20081005/wikipedia-vandalism-study-us-senators/#more-143

    The point is, they know that this problem exists and that these things happen on a regular basis. However, because of power issues within Wikipedia itself, they can’t come to an agree to address these issues once and for all. This happens every day to multiple people. That’s the real problem!

  2. Just seriously Says:

    Seriously, how is that a problem in real life ? If somebody reads those racial epithets, what will result out of it ?

    When part of the US media, and the US government, claimed to the American people that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, when some claimed that Iraq collaborated with Al Qaeda, this had real consequences – a war was waged, which killed many people, maimed many more, and costs immense amounts of money

    Now, that’s a real problem of information with consequences in real life.

    But a few epithets in a Google search? Are you serious?

  3. Why Syzygy Says:

    I’m not in favor of screening the writers. If we use the Wikipedia as something of a social order type of reference, its usage can be expanded beyond simple reference. I’m in favor of an open editing policy. There are other encyclopedic references available online. I like that wiki is a people’s effort to document their world. My .02.

  4. Joe Hodge Says:

    One member says why is this a problem??? Well it’s not to everyone but it dose show there are still some racial division in the USA when it should not be, being that the United States is of many people not just white and black. So this is a problem in “real life”! So are you serious??

  5. Gregory Kohs Says:

    “Just seriously”… the above example may not be a problem for Barack Obama. However, it is a problem for children who may be searching for information about him. It is a problem for the Wikimedia Foundation, whose non-profit mission is to build a free encyclopedia, not a hate site. (Hint hint… Over $6,000,000 raised in tax-advantaged dollars; contributors intended to support “knowledge”, not the “N word”.)

    But, if you still don’t get it, it’s not just about Barack Obama. It’s about how Wikipedia’s careless disregard for how its “knowledge” is edited can AND HAS led to civil rights violations against ordinary citizens. Imagine you were headed to Montreal to deliver an important lecture, but you were detained for 4 hours at the airport, missing your lecture, because of… you guessed it — Wikipedia.

    Don’t believe that could happen? Think again:

    http://akahele.org/2009/02/akahele_your_watchdog/

  6. anonymous coward Says:

    Here’s a timeline of 90% of of all media coverage of Wikipedia: Person/organization X decides to use a user-edited online encyclopedia for something important, ignoring disclaimers all over the site saying not to do that; person X doesn’t bother to do further research and repeats the content somewhere where they can be embarrassed if the info is incorrect; person X is embarrassed when it is pointed out that the info is incorrect; person X blames Wikipedia for not being flawless; hordes of people show up online to complain that they expect Wikipedia to not only to be a freely available source of information on basically everything, but also to be flawlessly accurate on everything; Wikipedia editors roll their eyes and wonder why all these people complaining aren’t helping out editing articles.

  7. Just seriously Says:

    @Gregory Kohs: As the above “anonymous coward”.

    There is something really flawed in the operations of the law enforcement bodies of the US government if they make decisions regarding immigration status of individuals on the base of unvetted information, regardless of where they find it, including in Wikipedia.

    Instead of spending your days looking for blog postings and news articles mentioning Wikipedia, if you really care about such mishaps. you should probably petition the US government for these problems to be corrected (I’m assuming here that you have US citizenship).

    Most problems that people associate with Wikipedia are actually problems with people reading Wikipedia without a semblance of common sense, or with so considerable laziness that they do not bother to cross-check facts by reading cited references.

  8. Paul Wehage Says:

    @Just seriously: Have you ever heard of Section 230? This piece of law gives websites such as Wikipedia immunity from attack against these sorts of “drive-by” vandalism attacks. Since the contributors are all hiding behind anonymous screen names, you have to get a court order in order to get an IP address, much less a real identity.

    If people saw Wikipedia for what it is: ie some sort of multi-player online role playing game, and didn’t look to it for real knowledge, there wouldn’t be this kind of problem. The fact that you are obviously unaware of the depth of this issue makes me believe that the general public needs to be informed of what exactly is going on. It’s not nearly as simple as you might believe.

  9. Just seriously Says:

    @Paul: I’m actually aware that in the US and in the EU, web hosting providers have no obligation to watch the content they host, and are responsible for that content only after having been notified of its evidently illegal character.

    This is hardly relevant to the fact that if US Customs and Border Protection or other similar law enforcement agency in Canada take Wikipedia as a reference source for refusing admission, then it is a problem with that agency, not with Wikipedia – and Kohs should be petitioning his government if he notices such problem instead of protesting Wikipedia.

  10. Gregory Kohs Says:

    Regarding the “disclaimer” that Wikipedia is not to be trusted:

    The disclaimer is found embedded in a link at the bottom of every Wikipedia page. Great. So, how many people notice or read this disclaimer?

    http://stats.grok.se/en/200901/Wikipedia%3AGeneral_disclaimer

    Looks like about 2,700 views per day. English Wikipedia overall gets about (I think) 15 million daily unique visitors, which probably equates to about 30-50 million page views per day. So, doing the math, it would appear that less than two in every 10,000 visitors to Wikipedia clicks the General Disclaimer.

    Meanwhile, Jimmy Wales and company jet about the world, giving speeches about their “encyclopedia” that aggregates “the sum of human knowledge”. They don’t make much mention of it being a “sometimes defamation platform”. They don’t sell it as “the free encyclopedia nobody should trust”.

    You can’t have it both ways.

    Meanwhile, I have petitioned a couple of influential U.S. senators to see if there might be traction for a review of Section 230, as the pendulum has swung too far, in my opinion, toward irresponsible practices in site management. Problem is, there’s this economic collapse thing (also a product of irresponsibility and lack of oversight), and Section 230 is about 230th on the list of what the legislature feels it needs to address.

    So, that leaves trying to slowly change public opinion through the very media that Wikipedia users seem to gravitate toward: blogs, blog comments, Facebook, and e-mail discussion lists.

    Did you know the story of Taner Akcam before I mentioned it here? Does knowing the story of Taner Akcam at least give you pause when thinking about how content on Wikipedia can, and does, end up violating human rights — regardless of whose “fault” it is. You blame a customs/security manager trying to do his job. I blame an online non-profit organization’s seeming disregard for implementing for safety measure in how information is presented to the public as “human knowledge”, not “human gossip” or “human libel” or “human graffiti”.

    So there you have it.

    At Akahele.org, we will not only be discussing Wikipedia. Facebook, Google, Digg, Amazon, and other sites are all worthy of closer examination and critique — in the interest of human decency and ethical practices.

    It truly says something that the two Wikipedia critics here (Paul Wehage and Gregory Kohs) are identifying by real name, putting real-world reputations on the line. They are debating Wikipedia apologists going by the names of “Just seriously” and “anonymous coward”. Why is that?

  11. Just seriously Says:

    @Greg Kohs: Simple, there is evidence that some anti-Wikipedia “critics” harass pro-Wikipedia folks at their workplace, phoning their employer with libelous information and so on.

    It is highly unlikely that section 230 will be altered, ditto for the EU directive, because of Wikipedia problems. Reason: no economic interest; US senators and the EC budge if lobbies push them. You’ll be more likely to obtain what you wish if you teamed with the copyright corporate lobbies.

    As for the customs agent, sorry, but if a person receives from the State a gun and/or other means of coercion against the freedom of others, then that person has to act sensibly. Running a Google search on the name of the person and believing everything written in the first hits, especially about a person coming from a politically troubled country, is sheer stupidity. We don’t need stupid people in positions to exercise coercion on citizens.

  12. Paul Wehage Says:

    @Just Seriously, as Greg and I (as named Wikipedia critics can point out) there is ample evidence that some pro-Wikipedia “critics” harass anti-Wikipedia folks at their workplace, phoning their employer with libelous information and so on, sometimes even planting this libelous material on their Wikipedia user pages and resisting all attempts to correct it. Since these people hide behind pseudos to make these statements, and we are using our real names, I fail to see what relevance your so-called “evidence” has on this subject. Perhaps it has something to do with that delicious glass of koolaid that you have in your hand?

    The general public has no idea just what a monster Section 230 protection has become on the web. Part of our own work is simply educating the general public on these issues, giving specific evidence and cases. The incident documented here is one glaring example of something that happens on Wikipedia multiple times every day. When people realize that, yes, it could happen to them, that’s when they as concerned citizens will contact their local legislators and try to work towards getting the laws changed.

  13. Just seriously Says:

    @Paul: I don’t know what this Kool-Aid thing is, sounds nifty. I’ll look it up on Wikipedia. My evidence about anti-Wikipedia folks harassing identified Wikipedia users comes… from the said users.

    I bet that US legislators won’t budge on section 230 unless there is a strong lobby (e.g. entertainment industry) that asks for more protections, or there is some kind of pedophile scare. Libel is not a priority problem, you will not get a mass movement behind you.

    Now, you can try. It’s a free world.

  14. Gregory Kohs Says:

    You know how a wave looks from the beach, out on the ocean, about 400 yards out to sea? As it takes time to form, focus its strength, and come closer to the beach, it’s rather quickly a big 7-foot curl that, if you’re just flopping around in the waist-deep water with your boogie board, not minding the seaward waters, has the potential to pound you into the sandy, churning bottom, leaving you woozy, gasping for breath, and checking for abrasions and scars?

    I think such a wave is forming out there…

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/02/08/MNOJ15F979.DTL

    As for workplace “harassment” of Wikipedians… are there reliable published sources that document this frightening trend? I would like to learn more about it, beyond hearsay. What has the Wikimedia Foundation done to implement an “editor safety” program, in light of this disturbing activity? Were the victimized editors engaging in any sort of tell-tale behavior, leading up to their being “harassed”?

  15. V.E.G. Says:

    They ought to be ashamed of themselves for calling people of African descents names. God created Africans and any other race and color of the skin does not count.

    James Frederick Fayard III, a black man with white skin, is rolling over his grave right now!

  16. raraheart Says:

    This is sooooooooo insignificant. It is like saying my god what are we going to do with spray paint, I mean people use that to spray all sorts of vandalism. We have to do something about spray paint. I doesn’t matter if a webpage has nonsense on it for a few minutes, it has no consequence, get over it.

  17. V.E.G. Says:

    Even the ancestors of Edward Mozingo and Daniel Waldo (the father of African-European woman America Waldo) is not going to like this.

  18. Caramoan Says:

    Barack Obama is not only a charismatic president but he is a very intelligent and smart person too. I congratulate him for winning a Nobel Peace Prize .
    `

  19. Mia Harris Says:

    Barack Obama is the best democrat president in my opinion. he makes the best judgment and foreign policies.. ‘

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