In early December 2017, a number of less than reputable web sites published claims that DNA testing companies such as Ancestry.com and 23AndMe regularly fabricated African ancestry in results for the sole purpose of “screw[ing] with” racist customers:
The specific claim originated on the web site Squawker, in a 6 December 2017 piece:
Who were your ancestors? What is your ethnic background composed of? Sites like Ancestry.com and 23andme have always been some go to sources in answering all of your toughest questions. But how accurate are they? In a recent interview with Cracked, one of the major ancestry testing companies, (which specific company is unknown) spilled the beans on what really happens when you purchase an ancestry kit. While I can’t say I’m surprised, you may be shocked to learn that these ancestry sites aren’t always as accurate as they claim to be. Beyond this, they’ve also admitted to tampering with the result to “screw with racists”.
It cited a 4 December 2017 Cracked.com piece, that relied on a single anonymous source for its most egregious claims, and ignored information from the Cracked piece that didn’t line up with its claims.
According to Squawker, “DNA testing companies” admitted to the practice—plural—but Cracked.com only spoke with one purported employee.
To boot, the claims made by the anonymous source were misrepresented.
The source first discussed the unnamed company’s “tweak[ing]” of results on rare occasions, typically to make up for mathematical shortfalls or in cases where a customer might be deeply disappointed by the absence of a particular heritage, per Cracked:
[Genetic questions] can be answered by sending a vial of your spit off to a company like Ancestry.com, 23andMe, or Living DNA … in theory. But the reality of those businesses is a lot less science, and a lot more hustle. We talked with Morgan, who works for one of the major ancestry testing companies. He had some interesting things to say …
They Might Tweak Results To Avoid Pissing People Off
Morgan admitted to having changed people’s results. “We only did this on rare occasions, when we knew they weren’t using it as means to harm someone.” A lot of this is done under the guise of having the tests line up with what the business already knows of the customer’s expectations. It’s easier to do that than to deal with an endless parade of clients who are intensely pissed off because they aren’t as Dutch as they expected to be.
“If the results only added up to 99.5 percent, we’d say, ‘Let’s stick that 0.5 percent under Scandinavian.'[“]
After asserting that it was “really easy” to sabotage one’s own result, the purported worker went on to mention two instances where a white customer indicated a strong disinclination to demonstrate black ancestry, per Cracked.
They Will Screw With Racists
“I only know of two times somebody wanted to be tested for being another ethnicity because they didn’t like that ethnicity. Both times, [they were] white people not wanting to believe they had black ancestors.” The first of these made an offhand remark that, “‘I’m hoping it will show people I’m not black.’ And not as a joke. He was serious.” The second customer was even less subtle: “He caught himself from saying the N-bomb. He said, ‘I want to know if any of my family are ni- black.'”
Morgan and his colleagues were caught between a rock and a really-want-to-mess-with-racists place. It would’ve been fun to throw a “10 percent West African” in there, but then they might have a pissed-off, dangerous person at their office, waving a gun. “Since we couldn’t do anything to the results (and we wanted to), what we did was add ‘< 1 percent’ to each African category of ethnicity. That way we weren’t lying, and they would both be wondering how much under a percentage point was. We always try to round to the nearest number because we sometimes hear about percentage points, but for them, we leave it open to whether it’s a one or a zero.”
Squawker used this detail from Cracked’s reporting to make an unsupported claim about a specific incident wherein a white supremacist discovered he had 14 percent “black” ancestry, inferring that it is potentially DNA test tampering. Neither of the cases discussed in the Cracked story involved anywhere near the 14 percent black ancestry result that was used as an example by Squawker, but rather less than one percent:
… Remember when white supremacist Craig Cobb found out that he was 14% black? Well as it turns out, there’s a possibility that those numbers could have been fudged with.
… This is beyond shady and deceptive, people pay more than they can really afford sometimes, just to find out the truth about their heritage. What about this is acceptable? How does this turn a racist into a “non racist”? It doesn’t. There’s nothing but high levels of dishonesty in these companies. Unfortunately, this doesn’t even fully cover the other things they do behind closed doors.
DNA testing sites have been fielding questions from the public, and a 23andMe representative has responded on Facebook about the rumors:
We contacted Ancestry.com and 23AndMe for further information. A representative for Ancestry.com responded:
We can state, definitively, that we have not, nor ever would, alter a customer’s DNA results. We believe in the power of science and our customers rely on us to provide as accurate a result as possible. We don’t know where this anonymous individual worked, but we are confident they did not work here, as their claims in no way reflect the scientific rigor and focus on quality that we apply to everything we do at Ancestry.
The 23AndMe representative explained:
Any allegations that we manipulate results are 100% false. Customer results are based purely on science, which we’ve documented extensively: https://www.23andme.com/ancestry-composition-guide/. Further, the author cites outdated research (a paper that came out the year we launched our first product, nearly 10 years ago) and misrepresents a test done by sets of triplets and quadruplets, whose results when viewed at our highest confidence threshold were nearly identical.
Although headlines suggested “DNA testing companies” admitted they routinely tampered with customers’ results and articles hinted that that fudging exceeded 10 percent, the claim was based on a humor web site’s interview with an anonymous purported employee.
Not only were the claims unvetted, but they are only alleged to have affected a sum total of two customers. The items referenced 23AndMe specifically, but the source material only claimed the person worked for “one of the major ancestry testing companies.”
Both Ancestry.com and 23AndMe firmly denied any such action occurred at their respective testing facilities.