Early on Tuesday morning, President Trump accused Google of rigging search results for “Trump News” against “Republican/Conservative & Fair Media,” and wondered, “illegal?”
Then, he promised that the situation would be “addressed.”
(Trump deleted the original tweets a few hours later, but re-posted the statements to Twitter around 11 a.m. The newer tweets refer to the “Fake News” media” instead of the “Fake New Media,” but are otherwise the same.)
Why was Trump tweeting about this at 5:30 a.m. on a Tuesday? One possibility — which many seemed to assume — is that Trump was Googling “Trump news” in an early morning investigation into one of his favorite topics — bias against himself. In all likelihood, however, Trump is repeating a claim that first appeared two days ago on PJ Media, a conservative news site, which published a piece with the headline, “96 Percent of Google Search Results for ‘Trump’ News Are from Liberal Media Outlets.”
Perhaps ironically, the PJ Media story came up in the first several results for “Trump News” when I performed a Google search for the phrase minutes after the president’s tweet. As other reporters noted, the top news result this morning listed under a Google search for “Trump News” was from Fox News.
The PJ Media story has already made the rounds on conservative media by the time Trump tweeted about it. Lou Dobbs also tweeted it out two days ago, tagging the president’s Twitter handle:
The topic came up again on Dobbs’s show on Fox Business on Monday, where vloggers Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, popularly known as Diamond and Silk, called it “a form of political lynching.”
Tech companies like Google, Diamond warned, have outsize influence around the world.
“These big tech companies don’t care about conservative voices … what they want to do is push their narrative,” she said, adding that the government should “step in and really check this out.”
Silk accused Google of wielding politically-honed search algorithms to censor conservatives. Dobbs agreed.
“Thank goodness” Trump uses Twitter to get around the media, Dobbs said in the segment.
This morning, Trump tweeted about Google. Afterward, the Drudge report claimed credit for bringing the issue to his attention, tweeting, “THE DRUDGE LINK THAT STARTED IT ALL…”
The actual PJ Media story is based on a search in Google News for “Trump,” which is probably a slightly different search than the one the president tweeted about, which was “Google search,” presumably the main google.com search bar. (Each of those two parts of Google uses different practices to rank results.) The PJ Media author performed the search a handful of times across a few different computers and then listed the news outlets appearing in the first 100 results for each query. The 96 percent figure seen in Trump’s tweet and the piece’s headline draws on these findings.
The PJ Media author used a media bias chart from a third party to determine a publication’s leanings and found what it deemed to be major right-leaning news sources with large reporting staffs like the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, but didn’t see several smaller right-wing and right-leaning sites better known for their commentary in the results, including the National Review, Breitbart, the Blaze, the Daily Wire, Hot Air, Townhall, Red State and PJ Media.
“While not scientific, the results suggest a pattern of bias against right-leaning content,” the author writes.
Google News results are ranked on a variety of factors, and the results are personalized to some extent. According to Google, the rankings are supposed “to promote original journalism, as well as to expose users to diverse perspectives.”
There are several factors that contribute to those results, including “freshness” of content and the extent to which it contains original reporting, as opposed to just aggregation or commentary on the news. Those rankings, Google says, are provided by algorithms. And of course, the results have a lot to do with the specific terms you choose to search.
In a statement Tuesday morning, a Google spokesperson addressed Trump’s claim about Google search results.
“When users type queries into the Google Search bar, our goal is to make sure they receive the most relevant answers in a matter of seconds. Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology. Every year, we issue hundreds of improvements to our algorithms to ensure they surface high-quality content in response to users’ queries. We continually work to improve Google Search and we never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.”
The Trump administration is “taking a look” at whether Google and its search engine should be regulated by the government, said Larry Kudlow, Trump’s economic adviser, outside the White House on Tuesday.
“We’ll let you know,” Kudlow said. “We’re taking a look at it.”
There are many other reasons PJ Media didn’t see certain conservative publications in the top 100 results in their survey, based on how the Google News algorithm works, and the specific moments in which the searches were conducted. But the accusation of bias has been around for a while and is a mainstay of how right-wing outlets talk about tech companies like Google.
In July, Republicans accused Google, Twitter and Facebook of bias against conservatives at a hearing about “content filtering” practices of major tech companies. As my colleague Tony Romm reported, multiple Republican lawmakers on the panel used the hearing to accuse the companies of a litany of things that they believed were proof of bias.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) said Google was censoring the word “Jesus” in some search results, a claim he did not give Google time to address. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) asked Facebook about falling traffic for controversial conspiracy site Gateway Pundit.
The questions were similar to those asked of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in April, when multiple Republican lawmakers used their time with Zuckerberg to talk about Diamond and Silk, the pro-Trump vloggers. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) used their complaint as an example of “a pervasive pattern of political bias” during the hearing, for example. The context was, the midst of algorithmic changes that impacted traffic for many publishers on Facebook, Diamond and Silk had said that their traffic was falling, which was proof of Facebook’s anti-conservative bias.
Soon, it will be Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey’s turn. He’s scheduled to testify during a Sept. 5 hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on algorithms and content monitoring. In advance of that hearing, Dorsey has been on a media tour, discussing a wide range of topics (including perceptions of bias) with mainstream and conservative news outlets.
Claims like this, of a massive conspiracy of bias against conservative ideas by all the big tech companies, don’t have to be airtight to be viral. And now this one certainly is.
This post has been updated.