As It Happens

Writer 'horrified' after Google uses his exposé to spread lies about caramelized onions

Tom Scocca says Google's algorithm took his "most valuable journalistic work" about how long it takes to caramelize onions and used it to perpetuate a lie.
You can't do this in five minutes, no matter what Google or the New York Times may tell you, insists reporter Tom Scocca. (Adrian Finlay/Shutterstock)

Read story transcript

Tom Scocca says Google's algorithm took his "most valuable journalistic work" about how long it actually takes to caramelize onions and used it to perpetuate a lie.

Five years ago, Scocca wrote a piece for Slate debunking the oft-repeated recipe claim that it only takes five to 10 minutes to caramelize onions. He found it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get soft, brown onions — 28 minutes if you cook on maximum heat and stir constantly.

People care about being told the truth.- Tom Scocca, Gizmodo editor 

"It's just not true and it has real consequences," Scocca told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. "People who talked to me after I had published my initial thing about this question let me know that they had blamed themselves. They thought they were bad cooks."

So when he started reading about problems with Google's new answer-generating algorithm, he decided to test it out himself by asking how long it takes to caramelize onions.

He was "horrified" to find that not only did Google repeat the information he'd debunked, but actually cited his debunking article. 

Until Tuesday, this is the featured snippet Google would generate if you searched how long it takes to caramelize onions. (Gizmodo)

Scocca wrote about the experience for Gizmodo, where he now works as a deputy editor.

The problem stems from Google's featured snippets tool, which used an algorithm to generate direct answers to questions and summarize them at the top of search results.

But sometimes that algorithm gets it wrong, as we saw last week when someone tweeted a video of Google's personal assistant device Home using a snippet to misinform people that former U.S. president Barack Obama is plotting a coup d'état.

"I was hoping it would get it right, and it was sort of appalling to see the way it got it wrong because the other things that the snippets have been getting wrong have tended to be things where somebody very passionately wants to put forward the wrong information," Scocca said,

For example, the Obama answer summarized a story from a conspiracy theory website. 

"So there, it's people who are putting out bad information [and] amplifying the bad information in a way that Google picks it up," Scocca said.

"In this case it was where I had written something that was specifically designed to knock down the bad information and Google was instead extracting the bad information as if it were good."

The Obama snippet has since been removed from Google's search results, and the onion snippet has been corrected.

After Scocca published a story on Gizmodo called 'Google's Algorithm Is Lying to You About Onions and Blaming Me for It,' the search giant corrected the error. (CBC)

That's great news to Scocca, who says accurate information is important both in politics and at home. 

"People care about being told the truth, and even on something as small and domestic as how to caramelize onions, it matters to people."