The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Republicans pretend that Google searches are biased against them

Placeholder while article actions load

There are lots of reasons to be concerned about Google these days — competition concerns, privacy concerns, even foreign policy concerns. Just 20 years after its founding, it has become one of the most influential companies in the world, with the potential to affect the lives of everyone on the Internet.

So on Tuesday, Republicans in the House summoned the company’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, to Washington so he could answer the burning question of whether its search results are biased against conservatives:

In an unusual move, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy kicked off the hearing — despite not sitting on the committee — by cautioning the tech mogul against letting political bias color its services. The lawmaker, who’s been a leading voice among the prominent Republicans accusing top tech firms in Silicon Valley of censoring conservative speech, said he hoped Pichai could reassure the committee that “any political bias within Google’s workforce does not creep into its search products.”

Every public congressional hearing is a performance, and McCarthy was signaling something important by coming to this one to make this claim. He was applying an old technique to a new phantom problem, a technique sometimes referred to as “working the refs.” It has worked effectively for conservatives for decades in their confrontations with the news media, so why not try to use it against Internet companies, too?

It's pretty simple. Conservatives make unceasing, angry accusations of liberal bias, no matter what the content of news (or Google searches) actually is. Sometimes they might have a legitimate complaint and sometimes they don't, but it doesn't matter, because the accusation never changes.

It serves two functions, which are best understood on the news media side. First, constantly attacking reporters for having liberal bias makes them bend over backward to show that they’re being objective, often by treating Democrats harshly. This works particularly well on reporters who in their personal lives have liberal beliefs, because they’re always worried those beliefs will seep into their reporting. When it works, what you get are things like the decades-long treatment of Hillary Clinton, whose every move was assumed to be manipulative and nefarious, culminating in the atrocious “But Her Emails” coverage of 2016.

The second target of the “liberal bias” attack is conservatives themselves. By convincing them that everything they read in the newspaper or see on the network news is a lie concocted by liberals to distort their view of the world, you not only drive them toward conservative media alternatives but also make them far more susceptible to your own propaganda. So when, say, the New York Times publishes an exhaustively documented investigation showing that Donald Trump and his family committed an absolutely epic degree of tax fraud worth hundreds of millions of dollars, it doesn’t penetrate the conservative bubble. Most rank-and-file conservatives won’t hear about it, and the ones who do will dismiss it out of hand, because it comes from the liberal media and therefore must be bogus.

The promotion of “liberal bias” began in earnest in the early 1970s, but it became even more central to the right with the creation of Fox News in 1996. Now not only was there a loud voice reiterating the liberal-bias attack, but there was a place conservatives could be sent for all their news needs. If you’ve got Fox, you don’t have to read the paper or watch ABC, NBC or CBS — you can get everything you need right there.

Attacking Google (or Facebook or Twitter or any other Internet company) for supposed liberal bias serves the same two functions. For “evidence,” conservatives look to analyses such as this one from PJ Media, which shows that Google searches on things such as the president are more likely to produce results from supposedly liberal news organizations such as CNN or The Post than they are to feature sources such as the Daily Caller or World Net Daily. How could there possibly be any other explanation than liberal bias?

You might think that you'd have to be some kind of paranoid halfwit to actually believe that Google's search algorithm is intentionally built to make the right look bad, but some people do believe it:

Even if this kind of attack isn’t going to get Google to change its search algorithm, the second function of the charge is still being served. More than ever before, in the Trump era the right needs rank-and-file conservatives to distrust any information they receive from non-conservative sources, so they’ll believe whatever outlandish thing the president tells them. It’s also important to keep the GOP base feeling aggrieved and resentful, like they are society’s only true victims.

For its part, Google is trying to calm Republicans' fears. As Nitasha Tiku of Wired reports, the company has engaged in a concerted effort to woo Republicans by doing things like donating to conservative think tanks and sponsoring the Conservative Political Action Conference. This comes from a recording of an internal meeting in March:

The meeting was led by Google’s US director of public policy, Adam Kovacevich, who explained that the company had to adjust its government-relations strategy after Donald Trump was elected, particularly since Republicans also control the House and Senate. “I think one of the directives we’ve gotten very clearly from Sundar [Pichai, Google’s CEO], his leadership is to build deeper relationships with conservatives,” Kovacevich said. “I think we’ve recognized that the company is generally seen as liberal by policymakers.”

Even if on a personal basis most of the people who work for Google are indeed liberal, its broader goals — such as maximizing profits and avoiding antitrust regulation — usually aren’t. But that won’t stop conservatives from insisting that the company’s search results are biased against them. It’s a strategy that has yielded far too much to ever abandon.