Okay Google, is Sen. Orrin G. Hatch dead?
For a few hours on Sunday, the Republican lawmaker from Utah was dead at the age of 83, according to Wikipedia.
No eulogy was given on the Senate floor. There was no scramble for a replacement or special election. Flags nationwide were not lowered at half-staff.
But if you searched for Hatch on Google early this week, a top result suggested he has been dead since Sept 11, 2017.
This was a surprise to some.
“Hi.. @Google?” the senator’s Twitter account said late Monday. “We might need to talk.”
Hatch’s staff offered proof of life on Twitter, including a recent photo of him reading the Deseret News, a major Utah daily.
But there is a curious detail about the photo, described on Twitter as Hatch reading a newspaper “earlier.”
The paper appears to be from June 2017, carrying an A1 story about Hatch’s visit to a Utah crisis center and his bill proposal to create a unified hotline for mental-health emergencies that uses three digits, akin to 911.
The proof offered by Hatch’s office that he is alive and did not die in September is a photo of him reading a newspaper? From three months before that?
Nothing to see here, his staff explained.
“The photo was taken yesterday, but it was an old copy of a newspaper we had kept because the cover story was about the suicide hotline bill that passed in the House yesterday,” Matt Whitlock, a spokesman for Hatch, told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
Google responded to the tweets from Hatch’s office early Tuesday.
“You certainly are alive and sporting a great sense of humor. We apologize for the error,” the company said. “We’ll have it fixed shortly.”
So how did this happen?
A look at the revision history for Hatch’s Wikipedia page may reveal the source of the issue. On Sunday morning, a user modified the page to add a death date, according to the page. It was removed hours later by another user who described the addition as page vandalism.
Google did not manually change anything with the search result, the company said.
But its search results in the top right corner, called knowledge panels, are populated from a “variety of sources” from across the Internet. That includes Wikipedia.
Wikipedia did not immediately return a request for comment. A Google search Tuesday did not reveal the erroneous death date.
It has been a short and existential ride for Hatch, who Whitlock confirmed was alive as of 7:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. His staff tweeted a picture of him reading Tuesday morning’s Washington Post at 9:52 a.m.:
“Having advanced four major bills last night, he was surprised to hear that he may have been dead the whole time,” Whitlock said.
The senator will retire in January after 41 years in the Senate. That makes him the longest-serving Senate Republican in U.S. history.
The Post got that from Wikipedia. So we asked Whitlock just to be sure.
It’s true, he said.
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