Amidst the deluge of news before, during, and after last week’s inauguration, you may have missed a small item that, though comparatively insignificant, held up an intriguing local-sized mirror to the contemporary debate around the ethics and neutrality of media.
For most of us around the country, last Monday the 16th was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. That’s also the case in Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, but those three states observe Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s birthday on the same date.
When the MLK holiday was first proposed, it was more controversial in the South than the celebration of Confederate heroes. Now, of course, most people would consider the continued celebration of Lee’s birthday to be the real controversy. This story would not have been a subject for national news, however, if it hadn’t been for the fact that Google listed the holiday on the Knowledge Panels for many local businesses in these states.
At first, as covered by Mike Blumenthal, many listings on Monday showed only the Robert E. Lee holiday as the reason some business’s hours might differ. Indeed, there were two Confederate holidays last week – Robert E. Lee’s birthday in Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, and Confederate Heroes Day in Texas on Thursday the 19th. Google showed both holidays in many of its listings, though Confederate Heroes Day was mistakenly called Confederate Memorial Day (a holiday celebrated in several states in April or May).
At Brandify we discovered that the only way to remove any mention of the holidays, which many brands and consumers would consider offensive, was to temporarily take away operating hours completely from the listings.
Later in the day on Monday the 16th, Google apologized for the mistake of leaving out any mention of Martin Luther King Day, and updated listings to show the King holiday and Lee’s birthday side by side.
Brandify’s Google claiming team observed that on Thursday, some listings in Texas were still displaying Confederate Memorial Day, while some were not. At that time, as shown in the screenshot, it was still possible to see both Confederate holidays listed in Google’s support forum as part of a standard list of holidays published in Google Maps.
Today, if you visit the same support page, you’ll see that Google has removed Robert E. Lee Day and Confederate Memorial Day completely, though it has retained other state-level holidays such as Mardi Gras in Louisiana and Pioneer Day in Utah. Presumably, to judge from Google’s apology and its modified holiday list, in the future we’ll see no mention of Confederate holidays in Google Maps.
I’m not aware of this issue coming up in previous years. Perhaps someone at Google inadvertently updated Maps holidays from an external source without closely vetting the list. If the issue hadn’t come up this year, we wouldn’t be left to wonder about the ethical ramifications of publicly referencing a holiday that many find offensive.
Google is probably right to sidestep the issue completely, but it does bring up an interesting ethical challenge. After all, these holidays do exist in four states, and businesses and government offices might in fact be closed to observe them. Google is a neutral party in all of this, whose mission is simply to present its user base with accurate information. Is it truly better to omit any mention of a holiday that might spark controversy, if the result is an inaccuracy in Maps?
Again, the answer is probably yes. Undoubtedly, these small exceptions are necessary in more ways than we know in order to preserve consistent policies across a large and messy dataset. But in making this decision, Google departs somewhat from its mission to bring hyperlocal precision to its worldwide directory of places.
I’ve argued before that today’s digital mapping services, though owned and monetized by private companies with no regulation, can be thought of along the lines of public trusts or utilities. In that light, Google, Apple, and other companies relied on by millions of consumers for access to public information should reflect the values of the communities they serve. In cases where those values are not unanimous, public companies are faced with an ethical question, and their answers can help to shape perceptions among users. For many, the removal of a Confederate holidays from Google Maps signals that it is truly a thing of the past.