The swastika, the symbol of Nazism, still provokes strong feelings of fear and anger. So it was something of a shock when late this week the swastika suddenly hit the top of Google's Hot Trends page, which tracks the 100 terms that U.S. Google users are searching for most furiously. It hovered there for several hours, then disappeared from the list.
It became the Web mystery du jour: How did the swastika get there, why did it become so popular and who, or what, caused its demise? The search for the answer sent Google watchers on a chase that led through China, Tel Aviv, London and finally back to the secretive company's Silicon Valley headquarters, from which Google issued a rare apology.
Often, the terms on the list reflect a burst of interest in some news- or commerce-related event, and readers can use the list as a kind of cultural heat map -- for example, when the iPhone 3G went on sale Friday. Yet somehow the swastika had ascended to the top of the list without a single swastika-related news story or blog post.
Various theories made their way around. A blogger named Dan at a site called tdaxp noticed the strange phenomenon. "The swastika is a traditional Chinese good-luck character, the Olympics are coming up, and good luck is on the Chinese mind."
Also, the Chinese press had just reported on a scandal: Owners of a commercial complex in Xian had adorned their building with a mural of "a long, black train with a Nazi-inspired swastika" on the locomotive. The Xinhua news agency quoted a bystander: "If it's creative, the businessmen were neglecting people's feelings. If it was unintentional, then the businessmen don't understand the history of that period." Still, even if everyone in China had been searching for the swastika symbol they saw in this story, it would not have registered on Google Trends.
But these theories were quickly discounted: Google's Hot Trends samples only from U.S. searches.
Meanwhile, there was the other, perhaps thornier, issue of why the swastika disappeared from Google's Hot Trends list. Generally, when a term is searched by enough people to shoot it to the top spot, it takes hours for it to fade from the list. An initial inquiry to Google on what may have happened to the swastika met with a cagey reply. Instead of saying why it vanished, Google suggested its own theory of why it had appeared.
An e-mailed statement suggested that the searches had come from "a popular Internet bulletin board," many of whose members were trying to "find out more about this symbol."
Enter 4chan, one of the Internet's most trafficked "image boards" -- places where members congregate to chat and swap photos and images, many of them related to Japanese anime cartoons. One particularly well-known section of 4chan is called "b" -- a rowdy back channel filled with obscene images and profanity-riddled discussion.
Google, it turned out, was right -- probably. There is no way to verify the chain of events because 4chan posts are not archived and generally cycle out of view within minutes. A moderator for 4chan said, "I've seen nothing to denote 4chan was involved at all."
But Christophe Maximin, a 20-year-old French Web developer and frequent 4chan user, said by phone from his home in London that he was monitoring 4chan and watched the following scenario unfold:
At some point Thursday, a member of 4chan's b channel posted a simple two-part instruction. First, Google 卐. Second, enjoy.
According to Maximin, hundreds or even thousands of 4chan members gave it a try. "They just wanted to know what it was," Maximin said. "And what Googling it would do."
Obviously, there is no character for the swastika on the standard keyboard. But Internet browsers can display many, many characters. The trick is knowing the short code (called html) that represents each. In this case, the code a 4chan member posted was the shorthand for the swastika. After the code is processed by a browser, it shows up as the symbol. (Curious readers are invited to try it.)
The flurry of searches for the swastika code -- most of which, it seems, were by people who did not know what the code represented -- shot the swastika itself to the top of the trends list.
It's a plausible answer, and if it's true it means the motivations involved were more rascal than racial.
Google eventually sent The Times a second statement addressing the disappearance of the swastika.
"We have an automated system to identify and remove inappropriate or offensive material in Hot Trends," it read. "In rare cases, when such material is missed, we manually remove these results.
"We apologize to any users who were offended by this situation."