If you visited Google News on the evening of Dec. 1 at about 9 p.m. ET, you may have encountered this slightly ungrammatical headline atop the site's "Top Stories" section:
"Canadians Authorities Arrest U.S. President Bush On War Charges."
The headline was taken from the Axis of Logic Web site, and the lede of its story reproduced on Google News read, "Canadian authorities have arrested US president George W. Bush in Ottawa. He has been charged with several offences under Canada's War Crimes Act."
Anyone who clicked through to the Axis of Logic story found themselves reading a piece clearly labeled "Political Satire" and viewing a Photoshopped picture of the president in handcuffs and a orange jail jumpsuit. For readers who hadn't gotten the joke by then, the next sentences drew it broader than the Hoover Dam:
Vice-President Dick Cheney has mobilized the American military and all border crossings between the two nations have closed. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has urged for calm in a short radio and television broadcast to the Canadian people immediately after the arrest.
Axis of Logic Editor Les Blough says his progressive site posted the satire on Nov. 30, and reader response—as measured by e-mail—split evenly between folks who enjoyed the joke and those who were ticked off by it. But nobody who took the time to e-mail believed the story was fact. Just to make sure everybody got the joke, Blough added a note to the piece reiterating that the piece was satire.
How did the satirical piece fool Google News into thinking it was news? When Google launched its news site in 2002, it boasted, "This page was generated entirely by computer algorithms without human editors," which is still the case. A helpful but harried Google spokesman directed me to a company page that explains why "articles appear to be out of context" from time to time on Google News. A deeper investigation is called for to determine why, in the two years since their invention, Google News' algorithms have yet to develop a sense of humor.
Thanks to Lillian Bennett, a Microsoft content producer, for capturing the screen shot of the Google News page. As most of you know, Slate is owned by Microsoft, which competes with Google. Send comments and criticisms to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)