On Tuesday this week, President Donald Trump, seemingly drawing on a study conducted by PJ Media, made the claim that Google was censoring its results to repress searches favorable to him. A majority of liberal writers, commentators, publications and Google countered the president and the study, claiming no such bias exists and that the information returned is not biased. But this is not accurate.
Information with understanding becomes knowledge. President Theodore Roosevelt was motivated, in part, to investigate meat industry practices after reading Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle,” which, among other things, contained information about unsanitary and disturbing practices within the meat industry.
President Trump now expresses concern about Google. In reality, those who claim that President Trump is out of his depth and does not know what he is talking about likely do not know what they are talking about. That is because Google — while it admits there are some 200 determining factors utilized in different ways in its search algorithm — will not actually reveal the workings of that algorithm. Even liberal publications like Slate call attention to this, and argue that there is cause to be skeptical in such situations. After all, the use of an algorithm is, in and of itself, a kind of computational bias.
And there is more that we do know.
Google is frequently adjusting that algorithm, causing results to rise or fall in search returns. At the same time Google is denying censorship and preaching access to information, it is working on ways to censor information with the government of China.
In June 2017, Google was fined $2.7 billion by the European Union for search bias. An internal memo at Google noted that the company had a liberal bias which created “a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.”
Google is not alone. Twitter has admitted — and said it has moved to correct — algorithms which have suppressed conservative voices. Twitter’s CEO also admitted earlier this month that there is a liberal bias at the company, which they try to keep in check. Facebook last year admitted that rogue employees could very well have repressed conservative trending topics, and that it would be taking steps to correct such problems.
Given such admissions of bias, skepticism is natural. But there’s more to it than just that.
In the modern environment, where Americans go online to get their news, whether it is from a search engine or social media post, those who have created such platforms by default bear a responsibility toward their consumers, without whom they could not exist. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two, dependent upon responsible service and responsible use. Honesty is required.
If any company wants to formally orient itself to the Left, that is their right to do so. But to state they are impartial is dishonest and a manipulation of those who believe such claims of nonpartisanship — and violates that symbiotic relationship of responsibility from service provider to consumer. Twitter’s admission of liberal bias and the attempt to balance itself is a rare exception and model for others to follow. For other publications, such as The Flip Side (www.theflipside.io, for which I contribute), a digest of opinion, readers are told upfront that they will be viewing arguments from both the Left and the Right on current issues.
Meanwhile, as everyone is arguing about who is right (the president or Google), the most important question is not being asked: Why does this matter?
According to a number of studies and market research, less than 10 percent of people look beyond the first page of search results. For the politically moderate, the casual voter, the swing voter and others who are neither committed conservatives nor liberals, those first-page search results will shape and determine perspective. If nine out of 10 results argue for point A, then based only on those first page results, it would seem that point A is clearly correct. Here, bias sways opinion; and opinion determines a vote — or action.
This is because the information that is presented, true or not, is considered by the reader — and then a choice is made. This was no less true for Roosevelt’s reading of “The Jungle” than it is for Americans today. Whether it is an advertisement noting that most dentists agree on a certain brand of toothpaste or a whether most scientists believe global warming is occurring, a preponderance of experts, results, opinions or claims will resonate in the mind. And yet, we know that the majority is not always correct (e.g., doctor-approved cigarettes; a new ice age in the 1970s; most people today falsely believing Medieval people believed the Earth was flat).
Given all of this, why do so many on the Left still believe it is OK to question the president but not Google? A true skeptic does not abandon the position at political boundaries. And if those certain Democrats are honest with themselves, they know they would be riled if the majority of results returned in searches favored conservatives and conservative positions, or a company of Google’s importance was found to have internal conservative bias.
The president has done the right thing to call attention to a concern. And sometimes, that’s all that has to be done. The market will work the rest out. No, the government does not have to become involved to set things right. Calling attention to problems and letting consumers in the marketplace commit to a discussion and making their voices heard can prompt corrective action.
In the last two years, when many liberals are suddenly quoting and becoming fans of George Orwell’s “1984” and discovering Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” (which both include the state control of information to the public), insistence on a lack of liberal information bias when evidence demonstrates at the very minimum a reason to be concerned, is ironic and disingenuous.