The notion that Google’s search algorithm is biased (explicitly or implicitly) against conservative voices and media outlets is nothing new. President Trump slammed Google for this tendency over the summer when he tweeted a screen shot of the results from a search using the terms “Trump news”…
…and it came back with only left-leaning news organizations in the top spots.
So it’s hardly surprising that, according to a late Thursday report by the Wall Street Journal, two tech reporters exposed an incident where Google employees considered actively biasing the company’s search algorithm to favor news sources that would offer the perspective that Trump’s then-newly issued travel ban was unconstitutional, illegal and dangerous, while also surfacing links to resource and information that would allow users to contribute to the ACLU or other organizations working against the ban, while also providing resources for people impacted by the ban.
The list of suggestions included:
“Actively counter islamophobic, algorithmically biased results from search terms ‘Islam’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Iran’, etc.”
“Actively counter prejudiced, algorithmically biased search results from search terms ‘Mexico’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Latino’, etc.”
“Can we launch an ephemeral experience that includes Highlights, up-to-date info from the US State Dept, DHS, links to donate to ACLU, etc?” the email added.
Several officials responded favorably to the overall idea. “We’re absolutely in…Anything you need,” one wrote.
But a public-affairs executive wrote: “Very much in favor of Google stepping up, but just have a few questions on this,” including “how partisan we want to be on this.”
“To the extent of my knowledge, we’d be breaching precedent if we only gave Highlights access to organizations that support a certain view of the world in a time of political conflict,” the public-affairs executive said. “Is that accurate? If so, would we be willing to open access to highlights to [organizations] that…actually support the ban?”
While these suggestions were being bandied about, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who moved to the US from the former Soviet Union as a child, was attending rallies in the Bay Area protesting the ban. Google also joined nearly 100 technology companies in filing a joint amicus brief that February challenging the ban. “The order inflicts significant harm on American business, innovation, and growth.”
According to the email chain, which was leaked to WSJ, employees responsible for search marketing said they were engaged in a “large brainstorm” about how to react to the search.
“Overall idea: Leverage search to highlight important organizations to donate to, current news, etc. to keep people abreast of how they can help as well as the resources available for immigrations [sic] or people traveling,” the email says. Some suggested ways to “actively counter” Google searches that produced anti-Islamic and anti-Hispanic search results. Others focused on how the company could use its “highlights” function, the code name for an experimental project that allowed influencers like politicians and musicians to post text updates that would appear directly in Google’s search feed.
A spokesperson for Google emphasized in a statement that none of these ideas was ever implemented, and that “Google has never manipulated its search results” – which is, of course, objectively untrue. In fact, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to meet with states’ attorneys general next week to discuss possible criminal action against tech firms that bias their products against conservatives.
“These emails were just a brainstorm of ideas, none of which were ever implemented,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement. “Google has never manipulated its search results or modified any of its products to promote a particular political ideology – not in the current campaign season, not during the 2016 election, and not in the aftermath of President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Our processes and policies would not have allowed for any manipulation of search results to promote political ideologies.”
Because who could ever forgot how Trump’s electoral victory caused such “panic and dismay” among top Google executive, after the company actively aided the Clinton campaign only to find that its vast influence on the culture still wasn’t enough to push her over the line.