Conservatives: Stop Crying Wolf On Tech Bias Or No One Will Ever Take You Seriously

from the this-is-not-the-bias-you-are-looking-for dept

In an article picked up by Drudge Report and then tweeted by President Donald Trump himself, PJ Media editor Paula Bolyard makes the shocking claim that Google deliberately manipulates its search results to favor left-wing views and undermine the President.

In supporting this allegation, she goes to Google and looks through the first hundred listings on the search engine results page. Therein, she finds that 96 percent of results for "Trump" are from liberal media outlets. Bolyard remarks:

I was not prepared for the blatant prioritization of left-leaning and anti-Trump media outlets. Looking at the first page of search results, I discovered that CNN was the big winner, scoring two of the first ten results. Other left-leaning sites that appeared on the first page were CBS, The Atlantic, CNBC, The New Yorker, Politico, Reuters, and USA Today

She adds that other than Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, traditional right-leaning outlets didn't make the cut:

PJ Media did not appear in the first 100 results, nor did National Review, The Weekly Standard, Breitbart, The Blaze, The Daily Wire, Hot Air, Townhall, Red State, or any other conservative-leaning sites except the two listed above.

Aha! A big tech company caught red handed pushing its progressive agenda. Well...not so fast. Rather than uncovering compelling evidence of bias, this article's author and its promoters merely reveal their ignorance of how search engines work.

First, the author seems to conflate Google Search and Google News, two products which use different algorithms and serve different functions. Google News is a searchable news aggregator and app (with some overt editorial functions), whereas Google Search tries to give users the most useful and relevant information in response to a query.

In order to determine what constitutes a relevant and useful result, search engines use complex algorithms to rank the quality of different pages based on a variety of signals such as keywords, authoritativeness, freshness or site architecture. A big part of this quality determination is based on outside links to a site – an idea going back to Larry Page and Sergey Brin's work at Stanford in the late 1990s that culminated in the creation of the PageRank algorithm.

Page and Brin realized that incoming links to a site served as a proxy for quality markers like authoritativeness, trustworthiness and popularity. Today, Google Search is much more complex, utilizing complex machine-learning functions like RankBrain and an evolving set of algorithms with names like Hummingbird, Panda, Penguin and Pigeon. However, incoming links are still a key factor. Additionally, while Google uses manual quality raters to test new algorithm changes, they do not use them on live search results.

Google News' approach to ranking results is also driven by algorithms that use a number of the same signals (you can get an idea from their patent), with a couple exceptions where manual input is used for editorial features, major events, and cross-over results from Google Search for particular topics.

With this in mind, it should be no great surprise that outlets like the New York Times, CNN, and Washington Post trounce outlets like PJ Media, National Review, and the Weekly Standard in organic search. The sites in the latter group don't have metrics that support them rising to the top of the search algorithm. Of course, PJ Media found Fox and WSJ weren't affected by this "bias" because their numbers are actually comparable to the former group of "left-wing" outlets (see below).

(Data from

This approach to ranking quality isn't just a Google thing. If you look at competitors like DuckDuckGo or Bing (which PJ Media didn't seem to bother doing), you're going to see pretty similar results. Maybe this says something about the media landscape. But it's not a good reason to storm Mountain View with pitchforks.

PJ Media's conspiracy-mongering is based on an avoidable misunderstanding that could throw gasoline on the techlash and lead to policies that chill American innovation (although at least for now, conservatives still think a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet is a dumb idea).

It's worth saying that libertarians and conservatives aren't totally unreasonable in wanting to investigate whether they're getting fair treatment by tech companies. After all, Silicon Valley is a very liberal place that doesn't always reflect their norms or values (I also say this as someone with generally right-leaning views who has worked for organizations like the Cato Institute and R Street). That being said, if you're going to make an allegation that there's a big conspiracy, you should do your due diligence. This means taking time to understand the underlying technology before jumping to conclusions.

On Google's part, given all of the tensions around bias lately, they would probably be wise to be more transparent about how their news algorithm works and do more proactive outreach to avoid future misunderstandings.

Zach Graves is Head of Policy for Lincoln Network

Filed Under: algorithms, bias, content moderation, donald trump, free speech, google news, journalism, news, search
Companies: google

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  1. icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 29 Aug 2018 @ 12:21am

    The Death of Liberty

    Anonymous Coward, you put too much confidence in Trump. He's going to fall, and it's going to be messy. And you won't get the last laugh, but your laugh will be later than ours.

    Unless we see some miracle of social activism, here's how it's going to go down:

    The First Amendment is unlikely to fall under President Trump. He's just too incompetent, and too many people enjoy the illusion of freedom. Also there's that nasty collusion-with-Russia business that is going to undermine the GOP's credibility with anyone who isn't a Total Trump Loyalist.

    But don't worry, Anonymous Coward your Era of White Nationalist America will come soon enough. You'll need to wait for the Democratic National Party to blow their turn at the wheel. Again. Don't worry, they're killing themselves with infighting.

    See, The last two Presidents already forged the Ring of Doom for Trump. Our robust intelligence and surveillance sectors are exactly what is necessary to route out the dissidents (all of them) and assure their careers [in anything] fail early on. Those that are too much trouble may just disappear.

    The United States got lucky this time. Trump got adversarial with the intelligence community early and has been ever since. So instead of systematically erasing every American who ever thought a liberal thought in their lives, he's fighting with them on Twitter, and looking like an idiot for doing it.

    But the DNC will take its turn, and right now the new no-corporate-money democrats are being squished by the old-guard democrats who get support from big tobacco and big media. And because they're beholden, nothing is going to change.

    That is to say [80% of] everyone will still be one gig-economy paycheck from eviction. That is to say we'll still be dropping Hellfires on countries that seem too brown and too terroristy. That is to say we'll still be paying more for shitty healthcare than any other nation in the world (even those that have lower mortality rates than ours).

    Life will continue to suck for most Americans, and the same old fascist I can fix everything song will still be popular, as will the Would you like to send our colored cousins home again? message. And you'll get some far-right ambitious despot like Trump. But maybe this time, he'll actually have some brain cells to rub together, and just maybe he'll actually know how to use the NSA and CIA.

    Then you can have your fascist dictatorship and you'll be so happy and you'll sing all the party songs and march the party march and salute the party salute.

    Of course, after they've come for the immigrants and brownskins and crazies and disabled and liberals, the purge trains aren't going to stop. And they'll look for traitors of the party, and as patriotic as you are, it just won't be patriotic enough.

    Heck, Anonymous Coward, you may have a damn good run playing musical chairs with all the internal groups. But unless you're a Bush or a DeVos or a Clinton or some other name is, today, on the side of freight cars or cruise liners or skyscrapers, you're not going to make it to the last round.

    And I get the feeling that before saving you from the mill, the Allies are going to wait for the Russians. Again.

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