By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

It’s no surprise that Google Podcasts include hateful content

I think there’s something of a category error in today’s front-page New York Times story on the hateful and false content you can find on Google Podcasts. Reporter Reggie Ugwu repeats on several occasions that Google Podcasts includes some pretty terrible stuff from neo-Nazis, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists that you won’t find at Google’s competitors. He writes:

Google Podcasts — whose app has been downloaded more than 19 million times, according to Apptopia — stands alone among major platforms in its tolerance of hate speech and other extremist content. A recent nonexhaustive search turned up more than two dozen podcasts from white supremacists and pro-Nazi groups, offering a buffet of slurs and conspiracy theories. None of the podcasts appeared on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.

The problem here is that Apple, Spotify and Stitcher are all trying to offer a curated experience. Google’s DNA is in search. If you Google “InfoWars,” you expect to be taken to Alex Jones’ hallucinatory home of hate and disinformation. And you are. So if you search Google Podcasts, why should that be any different? Indeed, that’s exactly the reasoning Google invoked when Ugwu contacted them for comment:

Told of the white supremacist and pro-Nazi content on its platform and asked about its policy, a Google spokeswoman, Charity Mhende, compared Google Podcasts to Google Search. She said that the company did not want to “limit what people are able to find,” and that it only blocks content “in rare circumstances, largely guided by local law.”

Let me be clear. It doesn’t have to be this way. Google could choose to keep its searches wide open while providing users of Google Podcasts with the same safe experience that its competitors offer. And maybe it should. It’s just that I find it unremarkable that a search company would run its business differently from those whose business model is based on creating a safe, walled-in environment.

I’m hardly a Google fanboy. I’d like to see it broken up so that it can no longer use search to leverage its advertising business to the disadvantage of publishers. But unless you think it ought to stop showing hate-filled websites when you search for them, then I don’t think you should be surprised that it also shows you hate-filled podcasts.

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  1. Steve Ross

    Google, Yahoo and Apple all called asylum seekers who, under American law can cross our border and ask for asylum, “illegal aliens” as their main search term. So why am I not surprised?

  2. I wonder if their podcasts are available internationally. It doesn’t sound like this content would be legal in Germany. Or maybe Canada. I guess that’s what they mean by “local law”.

    You’re advocating for Google blocking this content in the US. You wouldn’t be advocating a constitutional amendment to that effect. (And what does Harvey Silverglate say about this?)

    • Dan Kennedy

      No, I’m not advocating that Google Podcasts block anything. I’m just saying they should consider it. I think it’s safe to say that Harvey thinks all of this should be wide open.

    • Steve Ross

      In Europe, no. In general, speech that promotes Nazi or Nazi-like policies are banned by law. Europe has been there, done that. This has not kept far right, nationalistic parties from winning parliament seats and even some national leadership positions, as in Hungary.

      It has not kept habitual liars like Boris Johnson out of office, either. First encountered him covering EU parliament over 20 years ago as a “journalist.” Loon.

    • MagellanNH

      As I understand it, the key difference between google and the other podcast services is that Google is just indexing RSS links and is not acting as a platform by hosting the actual podcast content. The podcasts themselves reside on third party servers and not on google servers.

      Basically, a podcaster uploads their podcast file to their own website and uses RSS (Really Simple Syndication) to “publish” the content to the world. An RSS address is like a web link and listeners using Google’s podcasting service can enter an RSS address into Google’s podcast service to “subscribe” to a podcast’s feed. Google also provides a searchable list of RSS feeds that it has discovered by crawling the web so people can search for podcasts or other RSS content.

      So in this case, they’re just a search/indexing service in the same way they index and offer search services for other web content.

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