The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I wrote the article about media bias in Google searches. Regulation isn’t the answer.

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Paula Bolyard is supervising editor at PJ Media.

President Trump started off Tuesday on Twitter with a new target: Google, which he accused of rigging its search engines to promote negative coverage of his administration.

“Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal?” Trump said in his tweet, adding that “96% of results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good.”

That 96 percent figure probably comes from an article I wrote at PJ Media about what happened when I plugged “Trump” into the search engine’s “News” tab. Let me be clear: While suspicions about inherent biases being baked into the systems at Google and other tech platforms are certainly warranted, I do not believe that government regulations are the answer to that problem.

In my article, I reported that 96 of 100 results returned were from left-leaning news outlets. In fact, nearly one-fourth of the results (21) were from CNN. (To determine which sites were right- or left-leaning , I used  a chart from former CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson .) I stressed in my report that my research was not scientific and that it included only a small sample size (100 results). I did, however,  link to a report from a reputable online-traffic software company that studied 2,000 search results and found that left-leaning sites received far more hits on hot-button political issues than right-leaning sites.

The president, who likely saw a story on Lou Dobbs’s Fox Business Network show about my piece, took that 96 percent figure and ran with it, calling for an investigation into the “rigged” search results and suggesting that the government might need to regulate big tech companies.

As a conservative who tends to be rather libertarian on tech issues, I beg to disagree. The government has no business regulating private companies for their political views, and it would set a dangerous precedent to do so in this case. Government regulation would only make things worse. The Internet would be less free, and fewer voices would be allowed to have a say.

That said, I’m sympathetic to fears that conservative voices will be silenced. Media reports, including one by Chris Cillizza at CNN, have been quick to lump Trump’s tweets — and by association my article — into the category of an Alex Jones-style conspiracy theory, without putting it into context. Many of the media outlets chafed at being branded as a left-leaning site.

Here’s a dirty little secret of the news business: No media outlet is unbiased. Even if a site isn’t blatantly partisan, its biases come out in story choices and headlines that lead readers to certain positions, encouraging them to care about the things the media outlet thinks are important.

There have been plenty of credible reports over the past two years claiming anti-conservative bias at the Big Three Internet platforms, including the 2016 revelation that Facebook had routinely suppressed conservative outlets in the network’s “trending” news section. Further, when Alphabet-owned YouTube pulls down and demonetizes mainstream conservative content from sites such as PragerU, it certainly gives the impression that the company has its thumb on the scale.

Many, including my PJ Media colleague Roger L. Simon, have suggested that there should be an investigation into whether these behemoth tech companies are violating antitrust laws. The president seems to share that sentiment, as does his economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who said Tuesday that the White House is “taking a look” at regulating Google.

There is no easy answer to this problem. But perhaps a better approach would be for consumers to refuse to let big tech companies dictate what news they see. These companies — cocooned in their Silicon Valley bubble where tech leaders are, by and large, liberal — don’t understand the flyover states and the people who live there. I’m not optimistic that these companies are motivated to fix this problem on their own or change their hiring practices to include a balance of liberal and conservative voices. And they shouldn’t have to.

Rather, users should be proactive in seeking sites and sources they trust. When you find a site you like, visit it regularly and turn off your ad blocker or pay for a subscription. It costs money to pay writers and run a website, and if you’re not willing to subsidize organizations you like, they might not exist in the very near future, leaving all of us at the mercies of Silicon Valley algorithms.

I wrote in my article at PJ Media that these big tech companies have the power to influence elections and even the state of democracy itself. I stand by that statement. And while the president might have gone too far in calling for government intervention, I agree that Americans need to pay attention to this issue.

Read more:

Dana Milbank: Donald Trump, constitutional scholar

Floyd Abrams: Keep the government out of Google searches

Erik Wemple: Google gives Trump a look at reality. Trump doesn’t like it.

Megan McArdle: Bias against conservatives works like any other prejudice

Josh Rogin: Trump’s Google threat smacks of Chinese government-style Internet control

Greg Sargent: Trump’s rage-tweets about Google reveal a frightening truth about the midterms