Google Maps' reviewing system has provided a platform for Nazi sympathizers and antisemitic harassment for years. It's a quiet example of the trillion-dollar tech giant's disinterest in moderation—and a loud warning about how easy it is for the far right to appropriate online services.
Most items in Google Maps are treated like businesses which can be owned and managed, reflecting a system fundamentally designed to monetized. While this makes sense for restaurateurs and shopkeepers, it makes less sense for other locations, such as genocide memorials.
You don't have to go far on Google to find evidence of obvious moderation-at-scale issues. Reviews of Holocaust-related apps in the Google Play store, for example, are a miserable library of denialist rhetoric and misinformed debate.
For Google Maps, though, the problem goes beyond user-provided comments and reviews. It's structurally bound to how their mapping system treats memorials.
As memorials are structured like businesses and the registration process for a "business" involves a physical mailing, it makes it nearly impossible for memorials to be managed and moderated by responsible parties. Even with the most recent update to Maps, the "attractions" highlighted underscore a five-star rating rubric that's inappropriate for these venues.
The crematorium at Buchenwald concentration camp is open to "business management", just one example of an entity that cannot be verified according to Google's process. Yet these ovens have earned 4.6 stars.
This is compounded by the fact that Google Maps ignores most memorials. As a case in point, there are thousands of memorials to the victims of national socialism in Germany. Upwards of 80% of them are absent from digital mapping systems, and Google is not alone in this.
In Apple Maps, for example, the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, a significant cultural venue in the heart of the city, is marked as a public toilet.
The most well-known memorials are listed, often the result of manual additions to Google Maps. Due to the design and its focus on businesses and amenities, though, there is little room for memorial culture to express itself in listings, comments or how information is presentated.
Instead, Google Maps is put to use as a platform for Nazi veneration and Holocaust jokes.
Near the museum in Munich are the ruins for the Nazi-era SS Honor Temples. These SS sites in the center of the city repeatedly appear in Google maps, but are (to the company's credit) taken down after requests are made. But the sites re-appear, and when they do, comments return that praise Nazis and deny the existence and the extent of the Holocaust.
Another typical location is 3.9-star "Hitler Bunker" in Berlin: an informational sign indicating the location of the Reich Chancellery bunker where Hitler committed suicide.
This entry serves as a point for gawkers, tourists, and crude online jokes. Users of Google Maps are currently informed that services at the Führerbunker may differ due to COVID-19—be sure to call to verify opening hours in advance. The comments, the jokes and the lies all remain in perpetuity.
In contrast, only one block away is the T4 memorial, a large memorial structure commemorating the organized efforts to "euthanize"—to mass murder—those deemed physically unfit for society. It's an important memorial site in the center of a major city that was inexplicably absent from Google Maps up until a few weeks ago. It was listed as GJS Communications, Tiergartenstrasse 4.
In a city like Berlin with hundreds upon hundreds of memorials to the victims of Nazism, it seems strange that so many remain forgotten in the digital world.
If this isn't enough to encourage change in the mapping system, head on over to Ohio's 4.4-star "Hitler Pond" for a litany of antisemitic garbage.
While these structural data problems regarding memorial sites and suggestive locations are not unique to Nazism, it seems like one important area where Google could put some effort into accuracy and moderation. I've conducted research on the topic of memorials and have a large database with the digital locations to back up my claims.
Here are three ways Google Maps can improve:
1: The ability to rate and review memorials should be removed as an option. Google has other ways to determine the visibility or popularity of memorial sites.
2: Google should create a new set of categories to handle official memorials in its mapping system. "Historical Landmark" and "Tourist Attraction" just isn't enough.
3. Google should work to include all memorials to the victims of National Socialism in its mapping system. I'm happy to help and my research database with 5,000 memorial sites in Germany could provide a great start.
Since the murder of George Floyd, some confederate memorials such as the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Richmond have been moderated to block new photo additions and comments. So it certainly has the technical capability to quickly enact these proposals.
Sadly, I've made several attempts to reach out to Google and Apple about mapping memorial sites and have been turned away at each attempt.