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 Alexa.com)

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. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2018 @ 2:45am

    Re:

    *sigh* I'd make individual replies, but it'd take too long.

    Why can't Alex Jones be a talking point with this? There was no coordinated effort to take his stuff down? Since WHEN did every internet platform work together, ALL at the same time, and their rules aren't even the same and all applied differently? (Criminal orgs aside, so did Alex Jones break the law somehow...?)

    In the Bush W era Alex Jones was just the same: a guy who made loads of theories and was lampooned by lots of early-adopting video-makers. He was a source of ridicule and many people on the left eagerly awaited when he'd next put his foot in his mouth. People on the opposite side *relished* his words because they were thought of as idiotic and hilarious.

    What the fuck happened there?

    Looking at the way Alex Jones and other YouTubers are getting blocked or banned, there does appear to be suppression of certain viewpoints going on and it seems biased towards "crazy" conservatives or people who aren't in line with YouTube staff's political bent.

    Can't we listen and let people's own words hang them anymore, or is that too dangerous to consider? If we're saying "shut them up because they're crazy", that's one step away from saying the First Amendment doesn't matter for the people I dislike.

    The pendulum always swings in the states if you've lived long enough to see it, so don't be so eager to shut up people you don't like. We, as the public, can't put up with dissent at all anymore, it seems... when did we all get so fragile?

    If we're shutting people up, no matter the viewpoint (I hear some left-leaning pages were removed from Facebook, too), we're only martyring those people in the long run. This will create more tribalistic left/right conflict. Even if the ones being taken down favours your personal viewpoint, it isn't making either side talk to one another and just dehumanizing each side to one another as "crazy censors" VS. "crazy extremists".

    Don't be fooled by this attempt to stifle any rational discourse.

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