The truth behind the conspiracy theory about Google and Winston Churchill

Technical changes rather than conspiracy appears to have been behind changes.

Google has been accused of a conspiracy and a cover-up over a disappearing image of Winston Churchill – but the affair appears to have been both more complicated and innocent than it first appeared.

Outcry was prompted among some specific people on social media over the weekend when it emerged that searching for Winston Churchill no longer showed an image of the former prime minister, and instead just text responses to the query.

The search company was attacked by people including culture secretary Oliver Dowden, who expressed his “concern” that the image had been removed for sinister reasons. It disappeared amid ongoing debate about the place of statues in public life, racial inequality, and Churchill’s legacy, leading some to suggest the decision was a political move.

But Google said it was in fact the result of a bug that occurred when Google tried to change rather than remove the image. For technical reasons, the image then disappeared, rather than being replaced with the new picture, the company said.

It had been trying to alter the image to a picture of Churchill in his later life, and more recognisably him, the company said. The picture had been chosen to show him at an age when he was “more famously and iconically pictured”, Google said.

The company said the update to the Knowledge Graph – the prominent panels which appear at the top of search result pages – had taken place at the end of April following user feedback, but a bug in its systems had resulted in the new image not appearing.

“Following our procedures, human reviewers processed the feedback, determined the image wasn’t most representative of Churchill and we blocked the unrepresentative image to allow the systems to automatically select a different one, according to our policies,” the tech giant said.

“Normally, the image would update quickly. In this case, a bug in our systems prevented a new representative image from updating. As a result, Churchill’s entry lacked an image from late April until this weekend, when the issue was brought to our attention and resolved soon after.

“We apologise again for concerns caused by this issue with Sir Winston Churchill’s Knowledge Graph image. We will be working to address the underlying cause to avoid this type of issue in the future.”

Google also confirmed it was looking into why the first terms of some UK prime ministers, including Churchill, Harold Wilson, Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin were not being properly shown in the Knowledge Graph.

“It might be that our systems are only displaying the last term of prime ministers who had non-consecutive terms. We’ll seek to address this to avoid any unintentional concern,” Google said.