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Hey Google, you can’t ski Everest with your Epic Pass

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

Two climbers ascend toward the Hilary Step below the summit of Mt. Everest on May 23. (Peter Lowry, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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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.

Nonetheless:

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).

Google News includes a satire story about a “flaming land shark” at the Grand Canyon. (Screen capture of Google News on July 24, 2019)

The thing is, Google has spent years trying to combat the infiltration of fabricated stories into its news feed. Every year seems to bring new (real) headlines about a Google effort to stop fake news. But the TGR spoof shows how the wall still has holes.

Much of Google’s efforts have been focused on fighting websites that, in their entirety, publish false information for malicious purposes. Google News’ content policies refer to blocking sites that impersonate others or hide their ownership or country of origin. The policies don’t mention satire, but add: “We do not allow sites or accounts that engage in inauthentic or coordinated activity that misleads users.”

But TGR’s website doesn’t violate any of those, and, on top of that, it’s also a valuable source of real news about a slice of the outdoor industry and culture. So parts of what it publishes are news and parts aren’t, and that gives Google News fits.

The problem is seen most clearly in a TGR satire about the National Park Service renaming Yellowstone National Park as #Yolostone:

Search results for “Yolostone” on Google News show three real stories and one satire. (Screen capture of Google News on July 24, 2019)

In Google News results for Yolostone, the top four results have two real news stories, the satire piece and a story about Amazon helping to raise the height of a ski hill that sounds like satire but actually isn’t.

Google representatives could not be reached for comment, and a TGR spokesman also didn’t return a call. A spokeswoman for Vail Resorts, meanwhile, responded light-heartedly, writing in an email: “While we do not speculate on possible acquisitions, we are always looking for opportunities to enhance our overall network strength – be it Mount Everest or Mont Blanc on the Moon.”

That means even this very real, reported news story that you’ve just read here comes with a caveat: We can’t say for certain that Mount Everest won’t be included in an upcoming Epic Pass. 

But don’t start dreaming of a chairlift to the top of the world just yet.

This story was updated at 11:05 a.m. on July 25, 2019, to correct a typo in the quote from the Vail Resorts spokeswoman. The quote is referring to the Mont Blanc located on the moon.


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