Google manipulating its algorithm to prioritize left-leaning news
outlets in their coverage of President Trump? It sure looks that way
based on recent search results for news on the president.
and Trump supporters have for the last several years questioned
whether Google was deprioritizing conservative news sites, hiding
them from users who utilize their search engine. Google has
maintained that all outlets are treated fairly, but nevertheless,
conservative sites have reported reduced search traffic and, in the
case of Google-owned YouTube, content
creators have been banned and demonetized. Google's
high-profile firing of conservative James Damore, purportedly
over his conservative political views, only reinforces the idea that
Google is picking winners and losers.
test the premise, I performed a Google
search for "Trump" using the search engine's
"News" tab and analyzed the results using Sharyl
Attkisson's media bias chart.
expected to see some skewing of the results based on my extensive
experience with Google, but 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 (the last two outlets on this list
could arguably be considered more centrist than the others).
a single right-leaning site appeared on the first page of search
it got much, much worse when I analyzed the first 100 items that
Google returned in a search for news on "Trump."
by a wide margin, appeared most frequently, with nearly twice as
many results returned as the second-place finisher, The
Washington Post. Other left-leaning outlets
also fared well, including NBC, CNBC, The
Atlantic, and Politico. The only right-leaning sites to
appear in the top 100 were The
Wall Street Journal and Fox News with 3 and
2 results respectively.
Media did not appear in the first 100 results, nor did National
Weekly Standard, Breitbart, The Blaze, The Daily Wire, Hot
Air, Townhall, Red State, or any other conservative-leaning sites
except the two listed above.
are the sites that appeared most frequently in the top 100 results.
you can see, CNN has a disproportionate number of articles returned
when searching for "Trump" — nearly 29 percent of the total. In
fact, left-leaning sites comprised 96 percent of the total results.
performed the search a multiple times using different computers
(registered to different users) and Google returned similar results.
While not scientific, the results suggest a pattern of bias against
is secretive about its algorithm, although the company does say that
a variety of factors — around 200 of them, according to Google — go
into how pages are ranked. In fact, a whole science has developed —
called search engine optimization (SEO) — that purports to help
sites become more visible in Google search results. Factors such as
the relevance of the topic, the design of the website, internal and
external links, and the way articles are written and formatted all
can affect a site's Google traffic. Google is constantly tweaking
their algorithm, and a website's traffic prospects can rise or fall
depending on the changes. PJ Media's Google search traffic, for
example, dropped precipitously after a May 2017 algorithm change. We
have yet to recover the lost traffic. Other conservative sites have
reported similar drops in traffic.
I Rank," an SEO company in San Francisco, also
found an anti-conservative bias in Google search results. The
company studied over 1,200 URLs that ranked highly in Google search
results for politically-charged keywords like "gun control,"
"abortion," "TPP," and Black Lives Matter" and then assessed whether
there was a political slant to the articles.
our key findings were that top search results were almost 40%
more likely to contain pages with a 'Left' or 'Far Left'
slant than they were pages from the right," Can I Rank found.
"Moreover, 16% of political keywords contained no right-leaning
pages at all within the first page of results."
sampled 2,000 results and found that searchers are 39 percent more
likely to be presented with left-leaning articles.
some keywords, the disparity was even more pronounced. Someone
searching for "Republican platform," for example, would see the
official text of the platform followed by seven left-leaning results
that were critical of the platform.
company's research turned up no right-leaning sites in the top
results for keywords like “minimum wage,” “abortion,” “NAFTA,” “Iraq
war,” “campaign finance reform,” “global warming,” “marijuana
legalization,” and "TPP."
proportion of results with a left-leaning
bias increased for top ranking results, which typically
receive the majority of clicks," the company found. "For
example, we found that search results denoted as demonstrating a
left or far left slant received 40% more exposure in the top 3
ranking spots than search results considered to have a right or far
right political slant."
analysis of the algorithmic metrics underpinning those rankings
suggests that factors within the Google algorithm itself may make it
easier for sites with a left-leaning or centrist viewpoint to rank
higher in Google search results compared to sites with a politically
conservative viewpoint," the report found. "Though Google would like
to portray itself as a fair and balanced arbiter of facts — a role
it has recently tried to strengthen with the launch
of a fact checking mechanism — searchers should be aware
that ranking algorithms don’t currently incorporate an assessment of
political bias or even factual accuracy," the company warned. "No
attempt is made to present multiple viewpoints on controversial
political issues, and the algorithm in its current form does not
return results equally distributed across the entire political
denies charges that the company is manipulating the algorithm to
prioritize news from left-leaning sites. "Google does not manipulate
results," Maggie Shiels, a representative from Google's corporate
communications and public affairs, told PJM in an email. "There are
more than 200 signals taken into account when someone does a search
which include freshness of results."
stories are put into clusters to organise the news and to make them
easy to search through," she said, explaining that they have "labels
like highly cited, in-depth, etc." She said her personal
search for Trump returned results from BBC, the New York
Times, CNBC, CNN, and the Wall
Street Journal. "When I click on 'view all'
I get full coverage -- I get CNN, Reuters, Axios, Washington
Examiner," she said. Following those results, she sees her
subscriptions, video from Fox and CNN, a timeline, opinion pieces,
Twitter, and "all coverage which covers a lot of different
publications and is an endless stream of stories from a wide variety
columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote
about the problem of bias earlier this year, reacting to the
news of James Damore's treatment at Google. "Google's search
algorithms are a black
box to the public," he explains. "People inside the
company can mess with them without telling us, potentially imposing
their internal culture on millions of searchers who have no reason
and no desire to share it. This world includes Trump supporters
activists, creationist pastors and evolutionary biologists,
climate change deniers and people who consider them evil. It's not
up to an internet search company to try to level these differences."
if that company fosters a work culture in which a certain worldview
dominates, can its products be trusted to be neutral?" he asks.
colleague Roger L. Simon is asking the same questions. He
wrote here at PJM earlier this week that
social media companies are the most dangerous monopolies — ever.
"Facebook, Twitter, and Google are far worse than the original
monopolies like International Harvester and Standard Oil and far
more dangerous because they monopolize not just our industries but
our brains," he explained. "They control, or at least inordinately
influence, how Americans and even much of the world think."
more and more people turn to Google and other social media outlets
for their news, it may not be hyperbolic to suggest that the biases
inherent in human-created algorithms have the potential to affect
the fate of democracy. Certainly they can — and likely do — impact
the outcomes of elections both here and abroad. With all the talk
and hand-wringing about fake news and bad foreign actors using
social media outlets to attempt to manipulate election results, far
too little attention has been paid to power brokers like Google,
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and their ability — and perhaps
even desire — to manipulate public opinion and shape the world into
their own Silicon Valley image.
me on Twitter @pbolyard