Presidents’ Day: Google’s Complicated Relationship with Alexander Hamilton
We think you will agree that the best US president to focus on this Presidents’ Day 2020 is Alexander Hamilton. You know who we mean: “The ten-dollar founding father without a father,” as he is called in Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton.
Except for one small detail. Hamilton was never president. Nope, not even a little bit. And yet a lot of people, and at least one extremely important non-person, think he was.
Can You Answer This Question?
We conducted a (very) informal survey among our friends and asked them to name a few US presidents. Everyone listed Washington and Lincoln. Almost all of those asked also said, incorrectly, Hamilton.
Our small group of ill-informed respondents is not alone. According to a 2016 study, “about 71 percent of Americans are fairly certain that Alexander Hamilton is among our nation’s past presidents.”
In fact, most Americans are more confident that Hamilton was president than they are about half a dozen actual presidents.
But we shouldn’t shame people who either weren’t around when that Got Milk? ad came out, or can’t afford hundreds of dollars for a ticket to a Broadway show, for not knowing American history, can we? Or maybe we can, since there is a great source of information available, entirely for free, at the tips of their fingers.
Or is there?
Go Ahead and Google It.
We are referring to the internet, of course. We have outsourced the data part of our brain to the all-knowing Google.
So, who (is Google a “who”?) better to correct our error about Hamilton? Let’s have a look at what Google has to say about our beloved President Hamilton.
If you search for “President Hamilton,” Google does not display a screen saying, “No, you are mistaken.” Rather, it disappointingly encourages the error in its “People also ask” section, with the following four questions (sic):
What number of president was Alexander Hamilton?
Was Alexander Hamilton president of the US?
What year was Alexander Hamilton President?”
Which president died in a duel?
Even when you look at the answer to “Was Alexander Hamilton president of the US?” Google seems confused and doesn’t give you a straight yes/no answer.
Similarly, the answer to “What year was Alexander Hamilton President?” is not the correct answer of “never,” but rather somewhat avoidant:
Fewer people search for “President Hamilton” than for “Alexander Hamilton.” There was a huge spike in the number of searches for “Alexander Hamilton” around the time the musical came out. More and more people wanted to know who he was.
Indeed, things are marginally better if you search simply for “Alexander Hamilton.”
The second and third questions still imply that he was president, whereas question four actually confirms that he was never president.
At least two of the questions imply that Hamilton did serve as president.
As the lyric from the musical goes: “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
Enter “President” Franklin
Google is definitely telling its own story when it comes to Alexander Hamilton. But it’s not just about Hamilton.
If you would be so foolish as to search for “President Benjamin Franklin” (as we were) you would find that Google also fails to set you straight.
We are so used to Google supplying us with information, that we often trust it unquestioningly. Often, that works out fine.
If you ask Google “what is the capital of bolivia”
You get a clear answer.
But don’t ask Google, for example, “does Australia exist” since only one result on the page gives the correct answer; Australia does, in fact, exist.
In short, it is up to users to carefully examine each search result, taking responsibility not to outsource the thinking parts of their brains in addition to the data parts.
And just for clarity’s sake, Alexander Hamilton, although a really interesting guy with a talent for rap, was never the President of the United States.