Centre for Internet & Society

"Anti-national" is not a location. But Google Maps seems to have an address for it - Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital. On Friday, Google Maps pinned other such "locations" in the same place. It yielded the same result for other search terms such as "sedition," "freedom of expression," and "patriotism."

The article by Kim Arora was published in the Times of India on March 25, 2016. Rohini Lakshane was quoted.

The university, that recently became a hotbed of national politics following the arrest of the JNUSU president, also showed up in Google Maps search for other terms like "intolerance", "Kanhaiya Kumar", and "Smriti Irani". Google reviews for the central university suggest that this has been happening since last week.

JNU, it appears, is a victim of Google Map's word association. "This is a bug. Google Maps results take signals from many points on the web, including news outlets. The terms "Anti National," "Kanhaiya Kumar" and JNU have been in the news so much recently that they became associated in Maps which is why this result is triggered. This is a bug and we're working to fix this as quickly as possible," a Google spokesperson told TOI over email.

Google reviews of the university showed a barrage of one-star reviews uploaded in the last couple of weeks, reacting to the events and political demonstrations on the campus. "Ashamed to note that such a popular university houses anti nationals," said one such review. By Friday afternoon, Google Maps was among the top ten India trends on Twitter.

Rohini Lakshane, a researcher with the Center for Internet and Society in Bengaluru, ran a search for "antinational" on Google Maps from an Indian IP, and then again from those outside the country. She found that the JNU result only showed up for searches carried out from an Indian IP, and for those on Google India if used from an IP outside the country.

"Google's search engine seems to be correlating the keyword "JNU" with these terms owing to their extremely large concentration in the Google Maps reviews as well as associated metadata from other content on the web. This is quite common for topics that are widely written about on the internet and discussed on social networking sites. If the heavy concentration only exists within a certain country or region, then the results may only correlate for searches done from IP addresses there," says Lakshane.

Google search algorithms are known to take into account terms that are frequently used together to display results. In July 2015, for example, controversy broke after Google images started showing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's image if one searched for "Top 10 Criminals in the World". Google had then issued an apology for the faux pas, and said, "Sometimes, the way images are described on the internet can yield surprising results to specific queries. We apologise for any confusion or misunderstanding this has caused. We're continually working to improve our algorithms to prevent unexpected results like this."

Google Maps has earlier been subjected to pranks. In May 2015, Google had to temporarily suspend its Map Maker function after an image of an Android bot urinating on an Apple logo appeared on a map. Map Maker is an application where lay users can mark new places, routes, or institutions in areas they are familiar with.

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