No, Google Isn't 'Pushing' People To Vote For Bernie Sanders
from the push-it-real-good dept
Every political season, the conspiracy theories come out to play. I personally like the one that suggests that all the high ranking world leaders are actually lizard-people from the planet Bilderburg, or however that one goes. But the slightly more believable conspiracy theories can be fun, too, such as the one that says Donald Trump is a Clinton plant to ensure Hillary wins the Presidency on the theory that not enough American voters are actual crazy enough to elect Donald Trump as president. Which… yeah.
Anyway, the fun aside, it’s disappointing to see the mainstream media get in on this conspiracy theory action, such as when the Washington Post runs an article with the headline: How Google Is Pushing You To Vote For Bernie Sanders. The actual article doesn’t quite live up to that headline, of course, since accusing Google of trying to get Bernie Sanders elected through search results doesn’t make any sense on any number of levels. Still, the piece is about an analysis done by Slate that appears to get things exactly wrong in the most un-scientific way possible.
In an analysis published by Slate, Daniel Trielli, Sean Mussenden and Nicholas Diakopoulos tallied the top 10 search results for each of 16 Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Then they had a crowdsourced team of reviewers rate whether each of these results painted the candidate in a positive, negative or neutral light.
For instance, if the top search result was a candidate’s own Facebook or campaign page, that would qualify as an overwhelmingly positive result. But if a news story critical of a candidate came up in the top 10, it would be coded as negative. In they end, they found that “Democrats fared better than Republicans when it came to supportive and positive sites within the first page of results. Democrats had, on average, seven favorable search results in those top 10, whereas GOP candidates had only 5.9.”
Ok, so through the method of getting some people out there to Google a candidate’s name and then decide for themselves whether a search result is positive or negative, the general trend is that Democrats get one better search result than Republicans. For anyone outside of the group of my conservative friends that gets their GOP knickers in a twist at the slightest hint of liberal bias anywhere, this is a statistical nothing, particularly given the muted sample size of results. It also seems to think many people are going around and inputting presidential candidates into Google and then making up their minds based on search results. An assumption for which no evidence is provided, mind you.
Even the article notes that nothing about this indicates that Google is trying to influence voters.
Does this mean Google is in the tank for Democrats? No. The authors say that the outcome is “an organic, emergent result constituted from a complex prism of quantification involving hundreds of signals and increasingly complex and opaque artificial intelligence.” In other words, we don’t know a whole lot about Google’s algorithm. But we do know that pages that get a lot of traffic or are frequently linked to on other websites tend to do better in the rankings.
That helps explain why Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders fares so favorably in Google searches — nine of his top 10 results were rated “very pro” in the analysis. The senator from Vermont has a strong social media presence and a lot of followers on multiple platforms. So his Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accounts all come up high in the search results, contributing to an overall positive result.
Left out of this conversation is the fact that Sanders, agree with him or not, is a candidate with a populist message. That helps him in the search results as well, as many diverse groups of people will be discussing him and his campaign, likely all linking to one another and so on. But regardless of that fact, the point is that the premise of the article is exactly wrong.
Google search results aren’t influencing voters; voters are influencing Google’s search results. Coupled with some personalized results, Google search results are all about the most commonly read, linked, used, links out there. The more positive links about Sanders, or any other candidate, are popular, the higher they appear in the results. Same with negative links.
So, while it’s tempting to think the big evil corporation is trying to get us to vote for the socialist (because that apparently makes any kind of sense), the truth is more mundane.