Paranoid conservatives have increasingly become certain Google is trying to silence them, citing its firing of engineers who allegedly created hostile work environments and a largely illusory panic about YouTube censorship. Now, according to Tucker Carlson’s flagship site the Daily Caller, they’re worried Google’s new fact-checking initiative—recently installed as part of Google’s response to a backlash against misinformation in search results—is targeting conservatives.
Here’s what they’re mad about. Google the name of a publication and the search engine will display a sidebar with some information about it, like what it covers. This is what you see when you search “Gizmodo,” for example.
For some publications that have drawn the attention of Google’s third-party fact checkers like Snopes, though, the module displays an extra “Reviewed Claims” section. The Daily Caller is one of those sites and is pretty angry about it; it and others including Washington Free Beacon writer Alex Griswold contend that Google has mostly applied this tool to right-wing media. The Daily Caller calls it “downright libelous.”
It’s nice that Google is making an effort to flag misinformation. But let’s be real, this fact-checking module isn’t really all that useful—finding it requires clicking through to a submenu in a sidebar, and once the user’s there the module’s crowded with cut-off sentences and poorly contextualized information.
Displaying semi-random, individual “reviewed claims” doesn’t do anything to show a user whether a site is generally reliable. It would probably be simpler and more intuitive to display a message saying “Google’s third-party fact-checkers have questioned the reliability of this source. Click here for more context.”
Moreover, the Daily Caller correctly pointed out that the module had flagged one of its stories, saying it made the false claim that “The people that have been hired” for Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election “were all Hillary Clinton supporters.” That’s actually a Donald Trump quote that didn’t even appear in the Daily Caller’s article. The “fact check by” section of the module linked to a separate article by the Washington Post which had nothing to do with the Caller.
So their claim Google’s cluttered module appears to be muddling up is embarrassingly true. Yet let’s note that can be fixed, and inserting some fact-checking into a sub-menu in the sidebar of search results is not exactly a full assault on the Daily Caller. It’s not even clear having a fact-checking module appear alongside searches for a publication’s name could noticeably impact the regular SEO referrals they’re getting traffic from, which is what generates views.
As to the meat of the thing good conservatives are supposed to get angry about: Is Google flagging more right-leaning sites for review than left-leaning ones? Probably. But, uh, that’s also probably because a massive segment of the conservative media, particularly newer digital ventures like the Caller, are completely fine with brazen distortion and aren’t interested in the same journalistic standards as most parts of the mainstream media.
Griswold did post a list of sites Google failed to provide fact-checking modules for. It included oft-sensationalist sites (Raw Story), publications that maintain large networks of poorly-vetted contributor content alongside their paid professional staff (Huffington Post), and definitely dubious sources (conspiracy site Infowars, which should absolutely be flagged). It also includes a grab-bag of random left-leaning blogs and publications conservatives hate, ignoring the possibility these sites may not be spreading enough viral misinformation to attract the attention of professional fact checkers.
The mélange of sites Daily Caller and Griswold are complaining Google is unfairly fact-checking include far-right nuthouses like Breitbart, Daily Wire, Free Republic, World Net Daily, something called “Conservative Treehouse,” and a bevy of white supremacist outlets. More traditional conservative outlets like the National Review, the Washington Free Beacon, and the Weekly Standard don’t generate fact-checking modules either.
The takeaway from all this? Google’s trying to deliver more accurate results, but so far the results are mixed. Doth the Daily Caller protest too much? Oh, baby, absolutely.