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Google Thought My Phone Number Was Facebook’s and It Ruined My Life

A quirk in Google’s search algorithm turned me into Facebook’s customer support.

by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai
May 9 2019, 3:46pm

I’m waiting for the subway when the phone rings. On the other end of the line an angry woman is shouting at me about her Facebook account. I hang up.

A few hours later, I’m walking to get some lunch when someone calls.

“I forgot my Facebook password,” the man says.

I sigh, and—once again—explain that I can’t help.

Later, while at my desk, someone else calls up.

“I’m trying to get a hold of Facebook,” a man says. “They are taking my American rights away from me. They’re anti-free spech, anti-American, they’re pro Muslim.”

The man says Facebook disabled his account after he wrote a post that, he explains, “wasn’t even horrible.”

This keeps happening. In the last three days, I’ve gotten more than 80 phone calls. Just today, in the span of eight minutes, I got three phone calls from people looking to talk to Facebook. I didn’t answer all of them, and some left voicemails.

Initially, I thought this was some coordinated trolling campaign. As it turns out, if you Googled “Facebook phone number” on your phone earlier this week, you would see my cellphone as the fourth result, and Google has created a "card" that pulled my number out of the article and displayed it directly on the search page in a box. The effect is that it seemed like my phone number was Facebook's phone number, because that is how Google has trained people to think.

Considering that on average, according to Google’s own data, people search for “Facebook phone number” tens of thousands of times every month, I got a lot of calls.

“[Google is] trying to scrape for a phone number to match the intent of the search query,” Austin Kane, the director for SEO strategy for the New York-based consulting company Acknowledge Digital, told me in an email. “The first few web listings ... don't actually have a phone number available on site so it seems that Google is mistakenly crawling other content and exposing the phone number in Search Engine Results Pages, thinking that this is applicable to the query and helpful for users.” (Vice Media is a client of Acknowledge Digital.)

When I reached out to Facebook’s PR to get their thoughts, a spokesperson started his email response with: “Huh, that’s an odd one.”

I obviously can’t blame Facebook for Google’s faulty algorithm. But the fact that Facebook does not have a customer support number is contributing to this. (Facebook, instead, offers a portal for users who need help.)

Screenshot of a Google search
A screenshot of a Google search. (Image: Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai/Motherboard)

Of course, I could blame VICE’s formidable SEO. Or I could blame myself, for putting my phone number in my stories as a way to get tips from readers who might have something newsworthy to share.

But on this query, Google's algorithm was clearly broken—for some reason, it thought it was a good idea to extract and prominently display a phone number from article hosted on vice.com that’s titled “Facebook’s Phone Number Policy Could Push Users to Not Trust Two-Factor Authentication.”

Google's search algorithms are why it became so powerful in the first place, but sometimes, however, the algorithm is painfully stupid. In 2017, The Outline showed that Google often displayed completely wrong information at the top of the results when people searched for things like “Was President Warren Harding a member of the KKK?” or “Why are firetrucks red?” The article delved into the so-called “featured snippets,” those big boxes at the top of search results that are supposed to give users a quick answer to what they’re looking for.

The Outline piece proved that in the search for convenience, Google was getting things wrong. In a nutshell, this is another example of that exact same problem. Motherboard has previously explained, for example, that Google's overreliance on Wikipedia has left it open to trolling—the company's "knowledge box," which shows up on the right hand side of search results for some queries, are often pulled from Wikipedia, which led in one case to the search engine equating the Republican party with "Nazism."

On Wednesday, I told Google that my number was being mistakenly shown when people searched for "Facebook phone number." A few hours later, a Google spokesperson said they would remove my number as soon as possible.

“This feature is generally used to surface phone numbers from websites and make it easy for users to find them. In this case it was a triggering error and was pulling the phone number you had listed at the end of the article,” a company spokesperson wrote in an email. “There's also the coincidence that your article happened to be about Facebook and phone numbers, so it was highly relevant to that query and was ranking high up in results, adding to the confusion for people when your number appeared towards the top of the results page.”

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After reaching out to Google to get my number removed, the company fixed it. And now, when you Google "Facebook phone number" on mobile, the number that is shown is from an NPR article, which explains that the number Google was displaying is associated with a Facebook scam. Thankfully, that number is now out of service, but it doesn't give me any more faith in Google's algorithm.

At least people will stop calling me.

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Tagged:
Facebook
Google
search
algorithms
machine learning
tech-social-media