The Guardian accuses Microsoft of damaging its reputation with offensive AI-generated poll

The Guardian has accused Microsoft of damaging its brand by adding an offensive AI-generated poll to one of its articles.

In a story reporting on the death of 21-year-old Lilie James, whose body was found with serious head injuries in Australia, the tech giant’s AI asked readers to vote on the cause of her passing, giving them the options of murder, accident or suicide.

Furious readers reacted by describing the poll as “disgusting” and calling for the instant dismissal of the journalist – who had nothing to do with the poll.

Why we care. Microsoft’s decision to use AI instead of human writers is causing problems again. This is a clear reminder of why businesses should utilize AI to support human efforts rather than replace them. Neglecting this approach could damage your brand’s reputation and adversely affect your search rankings.

How this happened. Microsoft has agreements with major news organizations around the world, such as The Guardian and CNN, under which it can republish their articles in return for a portion of ad revenue. However, when the tech giant republished this story, its AI technology automatically added the offensive poll.

What The Guardian is saying. Anna Bateson, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, wrote to Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, accusing the company of upsetting James’ family, as well as causing “significant reputational damage” to both the newspaper and the journalist. She said:

  • “This is clearly an inappropriate use of genAI [generative AI] by Microsoft on a potentially distressing public interest story, originally written and published by Guardian journalists.”

Bateson then asked Smith to reassure her that:

  • “Microsoft will not apply experimental AI technology on or alongside Guardian journalism without the news publisher’s approval; and Microsoft will always make it clear to users when AI tools are used to create additional units and features next to trusted news brands like the Guardian.”

What Microsoft is saying. A Microsoft spokesperson said:

  • “We have deactivated Microsoft-generated polls for all news articles and we are investigating the cause of the inappropriate content. A poll should not have appeared alongside an article of this nature, and we are taking steps to help prevent this kind of error from reoccurring in the future.”

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History repeating itself. This isn’t the first time Microsoft’s generative AI has landed the tech giant in trouble. In September, the company was heavily criticized after publishing an AI-generated obituary for NBA star Brandon Hunter.

The former Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic player passed away suddenly this week, aged 42, after collapsing during a hot yoga class in Orlando, Fl. Shortly after his passing, fans were shocked to see the father of three described as “useless” in an obituary published on MSN. The headline read:

  • “Brandon Hunter useless at 42.”

Readers reacted by branding Microsoft “lazy” for leveraging AI to create articles and urged the company to rehire the editorial staff it replaced with AI.

Deep dive. Read the Guardian’s response in full for more information.

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About the author

Nicola Agius

Nicola Agius is Paid Media Editor of Search Engine Land after joining in 2023. She covers paid search, paid social, retail media and more. Prior to this, she was SEO Director at Jungle Creations (2020-2023), overseeing the company’s editorial strategy for multiple websites. She has over 15 years of experience in journalism and has previously worked at OK! Magazine (2010-2014), Mail Online (2014-2015), Mirror (2015-2017), Digital Spy (2017-2018) and The Sun (2018-2020). She also previously teamed up with SEO agency Blue Array to co-author Amazon bestselling book ‘Mastering In-House SEO’.

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