It’s impossible for anyone to keep up with the constant stream of tweets that pour out of President Trump, and WC declines to make the attempt. But it can be instructive to drill down and see what triggered a specific tweet. Let’s have a look at Trump’s August 28 claim that Google has a liberal bias.
Google’s search algorithms are proprietary, but an entire industry, Search Engine Optimization or SEO – has sprung up around inferring how Google’s algorithms work. In fact, you can look up the inferred history of Google’s algorithm changes on-line. It turns out that Google tinkers with it 500-600 times a year.
The claim that it is biased seems to trace to a blog post on PJ Media, written by someone named Paula Bolyard. Bolyard describes herself “as a Christian first and everything else after that.” Possibly a long distance after that, because she doesn’t have a clue what she is talking about. Using an utterly simplistic “chart” of “media bias” and a ludicrously tiny sample size, she concluded that “96%” of the search results were “left-leaning.” And made it look official by producing a silly pie chart.
Ms. Bolyard’s “research” reinforces the perception among the general public that right-leaning bloggers see a conspiracy behind every tree and talk expansively about things they grasp dimly, if at all. It suggests they have limited critical thinking skills.
Start with the “chart” of media bias.
It’s based on equally suspect work by a journalist and author, Sharyl Attkisson. It’s her opinion, nothing more. It’s not the product any independent scientific study. And it ignores the obvious fact that media cast as “left-leaning” all have conservative writers and columnists. The Washington Post, for example, hosts George Will, who is certainly a conservative, albeit no fan of the current president. Some media outlets, like Snopes.com, appear to be classified as “left-leaning” simply because they routinely debunk conservatives’ claims. So anyone classifying search results using this chart as a “guide” is going to produce suspect results.
Google’s algorithms use criteria by which Google selects news outlets and stories to feature in search results. While the details are proprietary, those criteria are known to include longevity, reputation, linking, search history, and more. As an obvious example, Alex Jones’ wacko conspiracy site InfoWars has a terrible reputation for accuracy.1 Of course InfoWars isn’t going to appear in a search on “Trump News.”
But there’s another, more practical reason why we can be pretty sure that Ms. Bolyard’s sloppy, silly research is simply wrong. Google is owned by Alphabet, Inc., a publicly traded corporation. If you don’t give accurate results to searches, you are going to lose customers. Remember, Google is a comparative newcomer to the search engine business. At one time, the leader was a company called Alta Vista. Alta Vista didn’t keep up, was purchased by Yahoo and shut down in 2011. Doing something as silly as biasing search results is a path to Alta Vista’s fate. Non one sensible thinks Google is that stupid.
Even assuming, in the absence of serious evidence, that Google is biased, the solution is obvious. Or at least obvious to anyone who pays attention. Use another search engine. There are a dozen or so.
So Trump’s tweet is based on a very poorly researched blog post by a person with dubious qualifications, using a media bias chart that is just one reporter’s opinion, and also unresearched, which the President seized upon as proof there was a conspiracy against him personally.2 It’s hardly the only time Trump has used the “bully pulpit‘ to advance untruths. It’s hardly the last time he will do so.