There’s been a lot of talk about a viral video which seems to show that Google’s search engine has a pro-Clinton bias. It seems that when you type in something like “Hillary Clinton cri…” the suggested results that pop up are never negative. They are, instead, “Hillary Clinton crime reform” and “Hillary Clinton crisis”. Two other search engines, Yahoo and Bing, have different suggestions, mainly, “Hillary Clinton crimes”.
Now, this, if true, could be important because it could mean that Google was trying to put Clinton in a positive light and could be steering people away from reading material that could have a negative impact on her election hopes. In any event, I decided to conduct an informal investigation to see if any of this could be true. I used a series of prompts and the three search engines to see what they suggested and then determined, somewhat subjectively, whether these suggestions were positive or negative, but you can be the judge.
Analysis: These results, unscientific as they may be, seem to indicate that Clinton fares better with the Google search engine than with either Bing or Yahoo. If there is a bias, it is a negative one from Yahoo and Bing against Clinton. Of course, these results may look negative but may simply be objective, meaning that Clinton’s profile leaves her vulnerable to more negative suggestions. Google is balanced in its positive and negative suggestions. Is this a bias? That’s difficult to determine.
Google defends its search suggestions saying the autocomplete algorithm purposefully avoids suggesting offensive words in conjunction with any person’s name.
“The autocomplete algorithm is designed to avoid completing a search for a person’s name with terms that are offensive or disparaging,” according to a blog post by Tamar Yehoshua, vice president of product management for Google’s search. “We made this change a while ago following feedback that Autocomplete too often predicted offensive, hurtful or inappropriate queries about people. This filter operates according to the same rules no matter who the person is,” Yehoshua said.
My response to this is… really? So the suggestion that Trump is a “chump” and Clinton may be a “robot” or “dead” is a positive association? Well, maybe if you’re a robot. A bigger concern for me would be the suggestion that Trump has “no chance” or that Clinton has “already won”. This, to me anyway, would be akin to planting subconscious suggestions in the user’s mind.
But I think there’s another issue here, and that is Google News and its suggested sources. To me, this seems far more serious. There is no doubt that Google News is a key player as a news outlet. News article links are also included in general search results, although they follow a completely different algorithm. If the sources cited in Google News were known Clinton or Trump advocates, they would steer readers in a particular direction. That said, there is already a media bias in favor of Clinton. This is the fact that Clinton has been endorsed by 84 newspapers while Trump has only been endorsed by 4. It would be pretty hard not to mention a Clinton-supporting news outlet in any aggregation of news items.
In any event, I checked the news sources first cited in any politically related headline on September 1st. The date had no particular significance. Here are the results for the three search engines. It should be noted that Yahoo has its own correspondents so does not rely on other sources.
Sources First Cited in Politically Related Headlines
Bing Yahoo Google
CNN (2) N/A New York Times (2)
NBC (2) CNN
New York Times Washington Times
HuffPost Miami Herald
It should be noted that both the New York Times and Miami Herald have endorsed Clinton. Both Bing and Google primarily cite sources that either endorse Clinton or are considered more liberal than other media (see chart below).
However, since Clinton has more media support, it does not necessarily mean that these news aggregators are biased, they may simply not have enough conservative sources to balance the outcome. The headlines cited could still be objective, even though the sources may be favoring Clinton overall.
I therefore decided to see which headlines were generated by a particular political event. I needed an event that would clearly divide the two sides of the political debate. I decided on Trump’s trip to Mexico and his subsequent speech on immigration, as this seemed to be generating widely differing interpretations. Here are a range of headlines from various sources on this event.
Critics ream Trump immigration address
The Duplicity of Donald Trump
Trump immigration speech: A president was born on Wednesday
Donald Trump breathes fire in immigration speech
David Duke And His Pals Loved Trump’s Immigration Speech
Trump backs away from mass deportation, but his speech packs a slew of hard-line proposals
I think you can probably arrange these from those favoring Trump to those against Trump. My first question is: Can you match these headlines with the sources given below? This will let you see if you already assume certain news outlets have a bias. Here are the sources these headlines came from:
New York Times (NYT)
Huffington Post (HufPost)
LA Times (LAT)
Now, here are the same headlines matched with their sources.
Critics ream Trump immigration address (P)
The Duplicity of Donald Trump (NYT)
Trump immigration speech: A president was born on Wednesday (Fox)
Donald Trump breathes fire in immigration speech (BBC)
David Duke And His Pals Loved Trump’s Immigration Speech (HufPost)
Trump backs away from mass deportation, but his speech packs a slew of hard-line proposals (LAT)
I’m sure you were able to match some of the selections correctly, but others may have surprised you. My next question is: Which headline do you think Google News favored for the top of its news page?
The answer is the first one on the list from Politico. Politico was exposed as favoring Clinton when hacked DNC documents revealed that they were asking the DNC for approval before publishing an article. The article cited above was a hit piece pure and simple. The best way to see the leanings of an article is to view the comments related to it. The comments were dramatically anti-Trump and the trolls lay in wait for any Trump supporter naïve enough to comment against the tenets doled out in the article. Anti-Trump trolls have the same M.O. from website to website. But the point is this: Anyone visiting Google News on this day would be steered towards an anti-Trump site with its accompanying anti-Trump troll henchmen. Now, imagine if Google News had the Fox headline as its feature headline. Wouldn’t Clinton supporters be rightfully outraged?
I am not alone in having suspicions about a Google bias in favor of the Clinton campaign. An investigation by the Slate website concluded, in December, 2015, that “Google is not fair; it favors some candidates, and it opposes others. And so far, it seems to prefer Democrats… Democrats had, on average, seven favorable search results in those top 10, whereas GOP candidates had only 5.9.”
Is being in the top 10 so important? In a study conducted by Advanced Web Ranking in 2014, it was found that over 70% of all click throughs (Click Through Rate (CTR)) occur within the first 6 results. More importantly, at least to me, is the finding that about 56% of searchers will click the first 3 links, and those first three links on a Google search are almost always related to Google News suggestions. So if Google News suggestions are biased towards Clinton, then Google search could steer many users in any direction Google may feel is important. Here is the chart.
For some reason, Democrats are, in fact, getting a Google search engine advantage. It may be that the Democrats have firms who are better at search engine optimization (SEO) than the Republicans. But the preponderance of evidence indicates that something in the Google algorithm is giving them an advantage. This may or may not be intentional.
The final question is whether or not such a search engine advantage could actually influence the outcome of the election. In an empirical study of this possibility published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, the authors reached three conclusions:
“(i) biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, (ii) the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and (iii) such rankings can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation.”
In other words, biased search results could decide the outcome of the election. The more hotly contested an election is, the more important the role played by search engine results could be. But are people so naïve as to believe Google search results are unbiased? Apparently, yes. According to one survey, more people (63%) trust Google than any other news source. Oddly, the researchers found that their investigations implied that “readers are more likely to trust a headline they read in Google’s news aggregator, over the same headline on its original website. This is not exactly encouraging news to the journalism industry.”
My conclusion is that, in an atmosphere of such blind trust and with news headlines leading most search results, Google has at its disposal a powerful tool which can be used to influence the outcome of the 2016 elections. Of course, we will only know if this is the case long after the dust settles and a new president is already sitting in the White House.