But are the search results biased? That’s a much more nuanced question.
In trying to answer that question last week, Google CEO Sundar Pinchai tried to explain how Google’s algorithm works to Congress’ House Judiciary Committee (which is kind of like God explaining how the universe works to my sock, but I digress).
One of the catalysts for this latest appearance of a tech hearing was another one of President Trump’s ranting tweets that intimated something was rotten in the Valley of the Silicon: “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of … results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!"
Granted, this tweet is nonfactual, devoid of any type of evidence and verging on frothing at the mouth. As just one example, let’s take the 96% number that Trump quotes in the above tweet. That came from a very unscientific straw poll that was done by one reporter on a far-right-leaning site called PJ Media.
In effect, Trump did exactly what he accuses of Google doing: He cherry-picked his source and called it a fact.
But what Trump has inadvertently put his finger on is the uneasy balance that Google tries to maintain as both a search engine and a publisher. And that’s where the question becomes cloudy. It’s a moral precipice that may be clear in the minds of Google engineers and executives, but it’s far from straightforward in ours.
Google has gone on record as ensuring its algorithm is apolitical. But based on a recent The Globe and Mail interview with Google News head Richard Gingras, there is some wiggle room in that assertion.
Gingras stated,“With Google Search, Google News, our platform is the open web itself. We're not arbiters of truth. We're not trying to determine what's good information and what's not. When I look at Google Search, for instance, our objective -- people come to us for answers, and we're very good at giving them answers.
"But with many questions, particularly in the area of news and public policy, there is not one single answer. So we see our role as [to] give our users, citizens, the tools and information they need -- [in] an assiduously apolitical fashion -- to develop their own critical thinking and hopefully form a more informed opinion.”
But in the same interview, he said, "What we will always do is bias the efforts as best we can toward authoritative content -- particularly in the context of breaking news events, because major crises do tend to attract the bad actors."
So Google does boost news sites that it feels are reputable and it’s these sites -- like CNN -- that typically dominate in the results. Do reputable news sources tend to lean left?
Probably. But that isn’t Google’s fault. That’s the nature of the open web. If you use that as your platform, you build in any inherent biases. And the minute you further filter on top of that platform, you leave yourself open to accusations of editorializing.
There is another piece to this puzzle. The fact is, searches on Google are biased, but that bias is entirely intentional. The bias in this case is yours.
Search results have been personalized so that they’re more relevant to each searcher. Things like your location, your past search history, the way you structure your query and a number of other signals will be used by Google to filter the results you’re shown.
There is no liberal conspiracy. It’s just the way that the search algorithm works. In this way, Google is prone to the same type of filter-bubble problem that Facebook has.
In a Slate interview with Tim Hwang, director of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative, he touches on the bubble issue: “I was struck by the idea that whereas those arguments [tech companies saying 'we try to have as neutral a platform as possible'] seem to work as late as only just a few years ago, they’re increasingly ringing hollow, not just on the side of the conservatives, but also on the liberal side of things as well.
"And so what I think we’re seeing here is really this view becoming mainstream that these platforms are in fact not neutral, and that they are not providing some objective truth.”
The biggest challenge here lies not in the reality of what Google is or how it works, but in what our perception of Google is. We will never know the inner workings of the Google algorithm, but we do trust in what Google shows us. A lot.
In our own research some years ago, we saw a significant lift in consumer trust when brands showed up on top of search results. And this effect was replicated in a recent study that looked at Google’s impact on political beliefs. This study found that voter preferences can shift by as much as 20% due to biased search rankings -- and that effect can be even higher in some demographic groups.
If you are the number-one channel for information, if you manipulate the ranking of the information in any way and if you wield the power to change a significant percentage of minds based on that ranking, guess what? You are the arbitrator of truth -- like it or not.