Is Google rigged?

Posted on Wednesday, August 29, 2018 by User Not Found

Thanks to a PJ Media article released this week about Google “manipulating its algorithm to prioritize left-leaning news outlets in their coverage of President Trump,” President Trump has threatened to regulate Google, tweeting “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media.”

We could get into a longer discussion about his misleading accusations regarding the media and “fake news” or discuss the fact that PJ Media is, by all accounts, a right-leaning blog itself, but for now, let’s focus on the real implications for Google and its digital brethren, Facebook and Twitter.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the president is mistaken in his initial claims; search results for “Trump News” return many articles from Fox News. But, nonetheless, he suggested Google’s action could be illegal and that the situation would be addressed, later insinuating Google has taken advantage of people and that Google, Facebook and Twitter are all “treading on very, very troubled territory.”

As Matthew Ingram writes for CJR:

“What conservatives seem to be focusing on isn’t censorship per se, but the actions of the algorithmic filters used by Facebook, Google, and Twitter, as they select what items to show a user given their search terms or profile (and the need for advertising revenue). The allegation is that these algorithms discriminate against conservative sources…”

So, is there any truth whatsoever to these claims? Could these tech giants (either purposely or inadvertently) be influencing the content that is shown in a negative way, discriminating against one political ideology over another?

Well, kind of.

As quick as CNN was to debunk the president’s claim, Slate writer Alexander Halavais revealed he has a basic understanding of how Google works in this piece, Trump Is Right About Google – Sort Of.

He writes, “A search engine’s main function is bias – that is, promoting some sources of information, while relegating others to obscurity.” He goes on to point out that the assumption that Google is a “neutral, natural, mathematical process by which we may reach the ‘best’ results for our searches” is inherently wrong. There is no algorithm that will make all the search engine’s users happy, only one that will rank the news based on hundreds of factors, including keywords, user experience and how many other prominent sites link to a page.

Halavais concludes that while there is “a public interest in a democracy providing its citizens access to information,” we should not necessarily depend on one search engine to filter everyone’s news. There is a risk in getting all your information from one source, even if that source technically is the portal to a whole host of additional sources.

For now, tech platforms and their users can assume that Trump’s threats are real. But what that could eventually mean likely will be even more complicated than Google’s news-ranking algorithm.

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