A satirical piece from a ski film company ended up on real search results for Vail’s Epic Pass, highlighting flaws in Google’s fight against fake news.
To the extent that you were scrolling Google News this morning for updates on Vail Resorts’ wildly popular Epic Pass and thought you had stumbled upon the deal of a lifetime that would allow you to take that pass all the way to the top of Mount Everest for only an extra $199, maybe put your crampons and glacier glasses back in the closet.
This isn’t a story about the ski pass wars taken to extreme heights. It’s a story about how Google, that all-conquering behemoth of information, still isn’t always good at distinguishing between what is real and what is fake — even after years of trying to address a problem most recently highlighted by special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony to Congress on Wednesday.
So, the set-up: On sequential days this week, two pieces of ski industry information innocently came into the world and then collided to bust through Google’s fake-news protections.
On Monday, Broomfield-based Vail Resorts announced it has reached an agreement to acquire 17 ski areas in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, which will be rolled into more than 50 other resorts already included at least somewhat in the Epic Pass. This appears to have gotten ski-deal-hunters, especially those in Colorado, flocking to Google to learn more.
Google search trends showed an uptick of interest in the Epic Pass earlier this week when Vail Resorts announced it is adding 17 more resorts to the lineup. (Screen capture of Google Trends on July 24, 2019)
On Tuesday, the ski-media company Teton Gravity Research published a piece of satire on its website about a made-up company called “Epic Resorts” and the company’s fictional megapass, called the “Stoke Pass.”
For an extra $199, the piece said, pass holders could get unlimited ski and snowboard access to the world’s highest summit, complete with climbing equipment, oxygen tanks, a tent at basecamp and help from Sherpas. The story also promised there would be a chairlift (!) built to 26,000 feet, roughly 3,000 vertical feet below Everest’s summit and on the cusp of Everest’s famed (and feared) “Death Zone.”
“Starting in Winter 2019, Epic Resorts will be proud to offer skiers and riders access to one of the most famous alpine environments in the world — however, it’s gonna be f***ing dangerous,” Epic Resorts CEO Rhonda McSally (not a real person) is quoted as saying. (The bolding in the quote is theirs; the bleeping is ours.)
One would think that this is easily spottable as satire. To boot, it was posted in the culture section of TGR’s website, not the news section. And it has tags at the bottom identifying it as satire.
A Google News search for “Epic Pass” includes a satire story about Mount Everest. (Screen capture of Google News on July 24, 2019)
At one point Wednesday, when The Sun searched Google News for Epic Pass, the Everest story was the third result.
But this is not an outlier when it comes to TGR satire appearing on Google News. TGR spoofs with headlines like “Ex ski bum questions point of career, adulthood”and “‘Flaming Land Shark’ discovered in Grand Canyon” have also appeared among real news stories in Google News results (albeit, after The Sun used much more specific search terms to find them than was needed for the Epic/Everest story).