It’s pretty much conservative dogma at this point: Silicon Valley is secretly discriminating against Republicans and conspiring to push left-wing propaganda on everyone! Donald Trump throws out unsubstantiated bile on the topic left and right, while Republicans in Congress and right-wing media parrot it nonstop. That’s all been despite a lack of any credible evidence suggesting it’s true, beyond the usual hearsay and distortion.
Here’s something that will absolutely not change the most feverish minds opining on the topic—that would contradict the conservative persecution complex that now dominates much of GOP politics—but is interesting nonetheless. This Saturday, the Economist posted the findings of a year-long analysis it ran on Google’s news tab in search results, concluding there is no evidence that Google goes out of its way to mess with conservatives or lend a helping hand to Democrats.
To check for political favoritism among the 10,000 human evaluators at Google who rank sources on “expertise” and “trustworthiness,” the Economist “wrote a program to obtain Google results for any keyword” and then ran it on a browser with no history in a “politically centrist” part of Kansas. That program built a database of approximately 175,000 links (31 for each day in 2018). Then the Economist compared those results to a predictive model that estimated what share of search results a given outlet could be expected to receive on a given keyword, accounting for audience size, social media followings, how dedicated each outlet was to a specific beat, and a variety of metrics supposed to estimate accuracy:
Next, we built a model to predict each site’s share of the links Google produces for each keyword, based on the premise that search results should reflect accuracy and audience size, as Google claims. We started with each outlet’s popularity on social media and, using data from Meltwater, a media-tracking firm, how often they covered each topic. We also used accuracy ratings from fact-checking websites, tallies of Pulitzer prizes and results from a poll by YouGov about Americans’ trust in 37 sources.
The result, according to the Economist, was that liberal and left-wing sites do appear more than conservative ones. But the left side of the news spectrum didn’t appear disproportionately more than conservatives: For example, the predictive model estimated the liberal New York Times would get 9.2 percent of Google news results, while it actually got 7.7 percent. Meanwhile, Fox News “beat its modest expectations” at 3.2 percent vs a prediction of 2.6 percent.
Far-right sites did not rank highly. But that was mostly because they had “bad trust scores,” the Economist wrote. (Shocker!) The same phenomenon impacted a left-wing site, the Daily Kos.
The Economist noted that this is not a perfect study: It did not, for example, show that Google does not personalize search results in a politically biased manner for users it has collected a lot of data on, and “politically centrist” is not the same as a blank slate. Some of its data points could reasonably be viewed as of limited value, such as the “poll by YouGov about Americans’ trust in 37 sources.” The Economist only crunched the numbers on the news tab, not general search results. And there’s always the possibility that fact-checkers and the people who hand out Pulitzers simply have a bias that coincides with Google’s, whether it’s political or simply in favor of media institutions perceived as having an elite status.
It’s also important to understand that this is not just about conservatives. Other web destinations, such as the World Socialist Web Site, have accused Google of arbitrarily cutting off referral traffic in favor of more mainstream destinations.
Additionally, the Economist noted that there did appear to be a trend in which certain terms resulted in more links to publications like Times (“Trump”) and others resulted in more links to publications like Fox (“crime”). It concluded that this is evidence “Google’s main form of favouritism is to boost viral articles”—something that will hardly be a surprise to anyone familiar with the modern digital media economy.
There’s probably other factors at work here. For one, as the Columbia Journalism Review noted, Republican politics has a long and storied history of “seeking to discredit journalism,” and many of its institutions have become increasingly partisan and polemical. (In other words, screaming inaccurate things louder and louder.) That doesn’t exactly bode well for their viability in search rankings at least ostensibly designed to emphasize “expertise” and “trustworthiness.”
As the Economist noted, sources that score well with fact-checkers tend to draw more of their audiences from search engines; hyperpartisan sources tend to do better on social media (where in the case of Facebook, research done by progressive group Media Matters has also shown no evidence of deliberate censorship). In fact, Google subsidiary YouTube has become such a nest of polemical political content, much of it very far to the right, that it’s had to deny the existence of “extremist rabbit holes.”
The less charitable interpretation, and one that will almost certainly be the takeaway of all the most terminally wrong commentators on the internet, is that Google is outsourcing its censorship operation to nefarious fact-checkers and their sinister false idol, the Pulitzer Prize. Believe what you want, I guess.