Type “Mike Pence” into a Google search bar and the first website to appear won’t be the Vice President’s official website but rather OfficialMikePence.com, an ingenious parody site created by FunnyorDie to showcase the VP’s accolades — Mike Pence has won seven (7) penmanship awards! — and his penchant for corn smoothies and mouth corner ointment. The fact that a parody website now populates as the first item for Mike Pence on Google highlights a challenge for the search engine’s algorithm, which recently received a $300 million investment to put toward combatting fake news.
The site was created as an April Fool’s joke, but it garnered attention last week, when Democratic strategist Scott Dworkin tweeted the website link, prompting many to think the vice president’s official site had been hacked. It wasn’t; his team had just never bothered to buy an obviously important domain name. And as of time of writing, it’s the first website to appear in a Google search after Pence’s Wikipedia entry.
“Mike Pence is the 46th President of the United States of America,” Google offers as a meta description for the website. Anyone who opens the link will then learn that, “President Mike Pence is proud to serve the white and Christian population of America for more than two decades.” This introduction still appears above the White House’s official page for the vice president.
The parody website is expert-level trolling, and nearly every screenshot is a meme in the making, but its ability to win the Google algorithm and land at the top of the search page is particularly embarrassing for a company promising to combat fake news.
After President Trump’s election in 2016, Google announced that it would ban sites that spread fake news from using its ad network service, citing the prevalence of falsehoods and public scrutiny of how the website’s inadvertent promotion of fake news may have influenced people’s political views. Non-advertising sites have proven just as difficult for the company. In March, Google said it planned to spend $300 million over the next three years to improve the accuracy of news appearing on its platforms.
A Google spokesperson spoke to Inverse and cited the parody website’s current relevance to the topic of Mike Pence as the reason for its appearance at the top of the results page. The representative speaking to Inverse argued that because the parody website is a trending topic, and is flanked by real news sites discussing the topic, OfficialMikePence.com was considered relevant to the Google query.
However, Google has run into problems in the past for amplifying what its algorithm deems relevant to the story. When an explosion at New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal was investigated as a suspected bombing, the Google search provided conspiracy theory tweets and unverified claims alongside the actual news. The popularity of falsified stories from Infowars became so prevalent that, indeed, they could be considered relevant to the larger story of what happened at Port Authority, but Google still received backlash for amplifying the stoires, sparking the question of chicken versus egg.
Still, Google says it recognizes a distinction between satirical content and fake news. The spokesperson told Inverse that because OfficialMikePense.com doesn’t intentionally seek to misinform, Google does not intend to remove the parody site from its search results.
The satirical website may not be fake news, but it does suggest there are still holes in Google’s latest algorithm. Despite the company’s public promise to combat the spread of fake websites, OfficialMikePence.com serves as a censure of not only Mike Pence but also of the tech giants that got him in office.
Editor’s Note: As of 4:40 p.m. Eastern, 8/17/2018, this story has been updated to reflect Google’s response.