A full hour before the sun rose in Washington, DC, Tuesday, President Donald Trump fired off a pair of tweets claiming that Google had “rigged” search results against conservatives. Like so many Trump grievances, the argument seems steeped less in fact than a roiling stew of personal animus. But in Google News, the latest target of his ire, Trump may have found the perfect target.
In Trump’s tweets—which he later deleted, then tweeted again, with no substantive changes—you can see the outlines of an attack that can’t be easily fact-checked or dismissed. Charges of bias against Google will stick, because no algorithm is truly neutral. And while Trump’s logic is specious, effectively countering it would require acceptance among his base that mainstream news sources like The New York Times are not, in fact, the enemy of the people.
In truth, there’s a lot going on in these two tweets. So much so that it’s helpful to break down what Trump’s claiming, and why, and what he plans to do about it, sentence by sentence:
Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media.
Here, Trump is including not just The New York Times, CNN, and familiar targets under the “Fake News Media” umbrella, but every major media outlet, other than The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. We know this because his entire argument appears to be premised on this recent story in PJ Media, which claims outrageous bias in Google News results against conservative sites, but counts everything from Reuters to Bloomberg to the Columbia Journalism Review as left-leaning. (Trump not only cites a specific statistic from the PJ media piece, suggesting strongly that’s his source, but also famously doesn’t use a computer. Googling “Trump News” is not a lived experience for him.)
In a statement, Google rejected Trump’s premise: “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology. Every year, we issue hundreds of improvements to our algorithms to ensure they surface high-quality content in response to users’ queries. We continually work to improve Google Search and we never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.”
In fact, if anything Google News appears to be one of the few places left online that hasn’t devolved into micro-targeted filter bubbles. In a study published just last month in Computers in Human Behavior, researchers Seth Lewis and Efrat Nechushtai found that Google News recommendations were in fact largely homogeneous, with liberals and conservatives being shown the same links regardless of ideology. And the top five results for news searches came overwhelmingly from a handful of mainstream sources: The New York Times, CNN, Politico, and The Washington Post.
“Yes, Google News is dominated by mainstream news,” says Lewis, who focuses on emerging media at the University of Oregon. “If you consider mainstream news to be left-leaning, you will have concerns about the results you get from Google News. There’s no question about that.”
It’s that “if” that Trump is leaning on. If you consider everything left of The Daily Caller biased, you’re going to find bias everywhere you look.
In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD.
No, Google doesn’t “rig” its algorithm against conservatives, or against Trump, at least not in the way that he means here. To take the last part first, the stories and news are “bad” depending on whatever happened in the world—like, say, close associates pleading guilty to or being convicted of federal crimes—right before you search. A very simple case in point: If you type “Trump” or “Trump News” right now into Google News, the top results all center around this very tirade. A Fox News link was the fourth result in a recent search in an incognito window, which doesn’t factor in search history.
But look more specifically at the emphasized words. Is Google News, in fact, rigged? Almost certainly not, but you’d be hard-pressed to prove it. That’s because Google search results, like Facebook’s News Feed and other platforms, derives its power from an algorithm that no one outside of the company has any specific insight to.
“The ways in which right-wing organizations have been able to manipulate Google and Facebook have actually worked in Donald Trump’s favor.”
Safiya Noble, USC
“Black box algorithms may be kept secret for business and intellectual property reasons, but they’re vulnerable to conspiracy theories,” says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. “There’s no way to know what the algorithm is doing for someone outside of Google or Facebook, or whatever tech company you’re talking about. And in some deeper, fundamental way, some of the machine learning algorithms, even the people working on them don’t fully understand what they’re doing.”
That has very real stakes; a 2015 study showed that the ordering of positive and negative stories in Google search rankings could hold real sway over how people vote. Keeping algorithms closely held does have the benefit of making Google’s systems harder to game, but it also gives Trump a huge amount of runway to make allegations that aren’t easily disproven.
Fake CNN is prominent.
True enough, at least the prominence part. Lewis and Nechushtai found that CNN occupied a slot in the top five rankings for news stories on Google 12 percent of the time. Only The New York Times had more, hitting 22 percent. But relying on mainstream news outlets rather than the fringes has ample societal benefit.
“The argument–that Google leads people to find democratic news organization–is dangerous. What we want is for people to have access to common understandings about what’s happening in the world, and investigative journalism that’s vetted and in many ways credible,” says Safiya Noble, professor at the University of Southern California and author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. “We certainly want people to have access to multiple news outlets, and search engines often do lead us to multiple voices. It’s just the more powerful voices are often on the first page.”
Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out.
Again, it depends on how you define the terms. But that argument features at least two levels of absurdity.
“The conceptual problem with Trump’s tweets is the idea that an algorithm is only fair if it returns an equally balanced number of stories favoring one side versus the other,” says Nyhan. “Take that to its logical extreme: Imagine if you searched for ‘does gravity exist,’ and Google had to return half of the search results saying, ‘actually it doesn’t.’ It’s a preposterous notion, but that’s the implication of the president’s claim here.”
The idea that Google and other platforms have shut out conservative voices is also broadly incorrect. “What we have found over and over again, for a long time, is that the most conservative, and racist, and misogynist voices are deeply skilled in optimizing content, and have had more than their fair share of control and representation in search. In fact, it was that phenomenon that led to President Trump getting elected,” says Noble. “The ways in which right-wing organizations have been able to manipulate Google and Facebook have actually worked in Donald Trump’s favor.”
Algorithms can, in fact, be found in violation of the law, says Salome Viljoen, a privacy fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. But that’s not what’s happening here. If Google’s algorithms did in some way infringe on free speech, that would only be legally problematic if Google were the US government. “You have no constitutionally protected free speech right on Google. It’s a private platform,” says Viljoen.
Similarly, Google would be in legal trouble if its search algorithm were discriminating against a constitutionally protected class, but the 14th Amendment does not cover political conservatives. And lastly, algorithmic bias could be illegal if it somehow caused someone to, say, be turned down for a loan application, according to Viljoen. But since with news results there’s no information being sold to third parties–for example, banks, to continue the hypothetical–that concern doesn’t apply.
So, to answer Trump’s question in a word: No.
96% of results on “Trump News” are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous.
See above. The 96 percent number comes from the PJ Media story, which defines “National Left-Wing Media” as anything mainstream. Yet a study from after the 2016 election actually found the candidate who most benefited from mainstream media bias was Trump, since coverage of Hillary Clinton was found to be overwhelmingly negative, and mainstream outlets paid comparatively little attention to Bernie Sanders.
Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good.
This is a new spin on the argument that Twitter was biased against conservatives because it banned several accounts for abusive behavior. It’s the behavior part that matters. Or in this case, it’s the thousands of signals Google uses to determine which sites rise to the top of the rankings.
“When it comes to a regular Google search, people still might not realize what that represents,” says Lewis. “There’s preferential attachment for sites that have been around a long time. Sites that have more incoming links are seen as having higher authority. There are certain terms over time where you develop that Google juice, that gives you more salience in the rankings. The same factors that go into Google search go into Google News.”
They are controlling what we can & cannot see.
It’s true! Google does control what people see, in a way that deeply impacts society—especially marginalized voices. “Google search results work in favor of people in power, quite frankly,” says Noble. “What you are more likely to see are vulnerable communities, racial and ethnic minorities, women and girls, and so forth, who are often much less likely to have influence over the algorithm or over search engine optimization strategies and so forth in a major search engine like Google.”
By appropriating this argument to his own ends, Trump also shifts attention from the very real conversations that should happen around algorithms, corporate responsibility, and representation.
“There are very many real concerns about the influence these companies wield. What’s disappointing about Trump’s argument is that it forces people who want to defend freedom of the press into a defense of the platforms, which deserve a lot of scrutiny. They do exert a disproportionate influence over the information people see,” says Nyhan. “The danger, though, is that they will be bullied into political submission” by Trump and other aggrieved conservatives.
That could take troubling forms; look no further than Facebook cowing to conservative pressure and abandoning oversight of Trending Topics, which let unvetted stories run rampant on the platform just prior to the 2016 election. Google News today shows everyone the same stories, projecting a ground-level truth. The alternative: Deeply entrenched echo chambers, the kind that have turned so much of the internet toxic.
This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!
It’s not clear what sort of regulation Trump has in mind here—White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Tuesday they were “taking a look” at the possibility—but even the threat has serious implications.
“We should take seriously when political leaders threaten speech and media coverage they don’t like,” says Nyhan. “We should worry about not just formal mechanisms of power but informal ones, political leaders bullying companies into their skewing search results or their coverage because of the threat that they’ll be attacked by political leaders, or subject to regulation or other types of scrutiny.”
Facebook failed that test in 2016. Now, it’s Google’s turn. But with its algorithm locked in a black box, and an opponent who views any media left of Breitbart with suspicion, it’s going to be an unwinnable fight.