On June 26 2023, Google took another turn toward actively disinforming readers when the search engine propagated a joke tweet by Twitter account @WeirdMedieval as a legitimate translation:
Two screenshots were attached to the tweet, one showing a tweet and the second purportedly depicting the results of a Google search for “memento homo.” The tweet was dated April 24 2023, and its text read:
“memento homo”, an ancient latin saying that translates to “remember you are gay”
“Memento homo” is part of a longer phrase: “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris,” a phrase in Latin that roughly means, “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.”
The phrase also evoked “memento mori,” translating similarly to “remember death,” or “remember you will die,” a phrase widespread enough that it may have given more weight to the false “memento homo” translation.
As a concept, “memento mori” was strongly associated with philosophical Stoicism:
Memento Mori is a phrase that has spanned both time and culture. It’s been used in meditation and philosophy by people from the Stoics to the Buddhists, all in an effort to achieve more gratitude for life and a perspective that makes our existence more vibrant.
A Latin phrase meaning “remember that you must die,” Memento Mori serves as a profound call to mindfulness and presence, urging us to contemplate the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death. Far from a morbid fixation, this ancient wisdom encourages us to recognize the transitory nature of our existence, inspiring us to live with intention, courage, and gratitude.
In its simplest form, it’s a reminder that your death is inevitable, your time is limited. There will be a day when you and I won’t wake up to enjoy the beautiful chaos of life. It’s one of life’s guarantees. No matter where you are born, how rich you are, or what you do during your life, you will die. Death is simply change, and change is life.
Unlike most fact checks, this particular claim was easily verified. On June 28 2023, we searched “memento homo” (without quotes) using Google, and instantly replicated the second screenshot:
Clicking the arrow next to “What does memento homo mean?” expanded a “People also ask” section that read:
remember you are gay
“memento homo”, an ancient latin saying that translates to “remember you are gay” Apr 24, 2023
https://twitter.com > WeirdMedieval > status
weird medieval guys on Twitter: “okay actually the full phrase …”
Both screenshots depicted a standard Google search result section labeled “People also ask,” with an arrow to expand the box. Search engine optimization (SEO) firm Brightedge had a page about “People also ask” boxes, defining the feature and its origin:
In February of 2018, if you searched through a search engine and then clicked your back button in your browser window, more SERPs [search engine results pages] appeared that you hadn’t seen with your original search. This is referred to as “People Also Ask.”
People Also Ask is a Google rich snippet feature that provides users with additional information they may be looking for from their initial query. An example of this is searching for “how to start a garden.” The People Also Ask results that appear are questions that follow your original search. Some include “what month should you start a garden?” “is it expensive to start a garden?” and “what’s the easiest vegetable to grow?” All of these questions relate to beginner queries on starting a garden.
“Memento homo” was not the only example of misleading or even potentially dangerous Google snippets. On April 13 2023, a Reddit user shared a completely different and misleading Google snippet to r/mildlyinfuriating:
That post was titled “Google highlights half the sentence, which gives it the opposite meaning,” and it depicted a Google search for “can dogs eat avocado.” In the screenshot, Google highlighted a portion of a sentence, indeed giving the snippet “the opposite meaning”:
According to veterinarians, dogs are more resistant to person than other animals, but that doesn’t mean avocados are 100% safe for your dog to consume. Persin is present in avocado fruit, pits, leaves, and the actual plant …
A search for “can avocado hurt dogs” led to the ASPCA website and an article about pet-safe parties, which indicated that avocado could cause dogs (and cats) to become ill:
While guacamole is a staple at most parties, unfortunately, the persin in avocados may cause gastrointestinal (GI) upset in dogs and cats, and could be fatal to any birds living in the home. Dogs and cats may develop pancreatitis due to the fat content in the avocado if enough is ingested, and if the pit is ingested, it may cause an intestinal obstruction.
Google snippet errors and missteps were not exclusive to search results. On June 23 2023, Google News’ “Fact Check” section promoted a PolitiFact fact check about the Titan submersible incident which left five people dead:
Text on the above screenshot read:
From independent sources
Search continues for Titan passengers, despite social media claims
Claim: The five people aboard the Titan submersible “have been found dead.”
Fact check by PolitiFact: False
As of June 28 2023, the Google News “Fact Check” box looked like this, with “8 days ago” and “21 hours ago” standing in for the time and date of publishing. It was unclear how fact checks were selected for the box, or why eight day old fact checks were promoted:
PolitiFact’s “Search continues for Titan passengers, despite social media claims” article was pinned for the entirety of June 23 2023. The Titan submersible incident was a prominent international news story throughout late June 2023, generating real-time, constant coverage of the vessel and its five passengers.
A June 27 2023 ABC News timeline of the search for the Titan submersible recapped developments in chronological order. As it indicated, owner-operator of the Titan submersible (OceanGate) and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) deemed the vessel and its crew lost on June 22 2023:
At 6:56 a.m. ET [on June 22 2023], the U.S. Coast Guard announced via Twitter that a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, deployed by the Canadian vessel Horizon Arctic has reached the sea floor, beginning its search for the missing submersible. The Titan’s 96-hour oxygen supply was forecast to run out sometime in the morning [on June 22 2023].
At 7:30 a.m. ET [on June 22 2023], the U.S. Coast Guard tweeted that the French vessel L’Atalante has deployed its ROV into the water in the search area … At 11:48 a.m. ET [on June 22 2023], the U.S. Coast Guard tweeted that “a debris field was discovered within the search area by an ROV near the Titanic” and experts were “evaluating the information.”
At 2:49 p.m. ET [on June 22 2023], OceanGate Expeditions issued a statement saying that all five people aboard the Titan were believed to be dead.
During a press conference at 3 p.m. ET [on June 22 2023], the U.S. Coast Guard announced that an ROV has located the tail cone of the submersible about 1,600 feet from the bow of the wrecked Titanic. Additional debris found was “consistent with the catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber,” according to Rear Adm. John Mauger, commander of the First Coast Guard District. The victims’ families were “immediately notified,” he said.
In other words, Google’s “Fact Check” box also gave the impression of the opposite meaning, pinning and promoting a PolitiFact article that contradicted the major headlines situated above it. In turn, Google News created the impression that fact checks were less reliable than the news presented alongside it.
Counterfactual Google highlights appeared in no fewer than five unrelated fact checks we have conducted, concerning the “first American city bombed by airplanes,” a false attribution to Jim Carrey, a false attribution to Mark Twain, a “fake news” meme presented as real news, and a misidentification of the actual “inventor” of macaroni and cheese.
On June 26 2023, Twitter user @WeirdMedieval tweeted about Google’s “People also ask” box referencing their humorous tweet asserting that “memento homo” was “ancient Latin” for “remember you are gay.” A Google search pulling from that tweet offered what appeared to be evidence that the “claim” was correct, one of countless mismanaged and misleading Google snippets. Google generated a definition for “memento homo” based on an obviously satirical tweet.