In an effort to understand how Google search algorithms work, a Democratic congresswoman asked the tech company’s chief executive a simple question: “If you Google the word ‘idiot' under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. How would that happen? How does search work so that that would occur?”
In the middle of a congressional hearing ostensibly about privacy and data collection, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) seemed to perform that search from the dais. As it turns out, the image results for “idiot” does reveal a page of mostly Trump photos.
Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, who was testifying Tuesday morning before the House Judiciary Committee, tried to explain to the roomful of mostly tech novices how the algorithms take into account some 200 factors — such as relevance, popularity, how others are using the search term — to determine how to best match a query with results.
“So it’s not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we’re going to show the user. It’s basically a compilation of what users are generating, and trying to sort through that information?” Lofgren asked, facetiously.
Lofgren was reacting to Republicans' allegations that Google employees manipulate results for political reasons. The hearing mostly revealed lawmakers' rudimentary understanding of how the Internet works and provided a platform for them to complain about unfavorable search results.
In one exchange, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) asked Pichai whether he had ever directed an employee to manipulate search results. Pichai explained that it’s not possible for one person, or even a group of people, to do that because there are so many steps in the process.
But Smith did not accept that explanation, telling Pichai: “Let me just say, I disagree. I think humans can manipulate the process. It is a human process at its base.”
Republicans on the panel couldn’t get past the myth that some person(s) inside Google couldn’t arbitrarily change search algorithms for political gain.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) complained that when he googled the Republican health-care bill or the GOP tax cuts the first several pages listed negative articles. “How do you explain this apparent bias on Google’s part against conservative points of view, against conservative policies? Is it just the algorithm, or is there more happening there?” Chabot asked.
“Congressman, I understand the frustration of seeing negative news, and, you know, I see it on me,” Pichai offered. “What is important here is we use the robust methodology to reflect what is being said about any given topic at any particular time. And we try to do it objectively, using a set of rubrics. It is in our interest to make sure we reflect what’s happening out there in the best objective manner possible. I can commit to you, and I can assure you, we do it without regards to political ideology. Our algorithms have no notion of political sentiment in it.”
But Chabot wasn’t having it. He told Pichai that conservatives believe Google is “picking winners and losers in political discourse.”
“There’s a lot of people that think what I’m saying here is happening,” Chabot said. “And I think it’s happening.”
One Democratic lawmaker had a blunt message for his Republicans complaining about Google searches.
“If you want positive search results, do positive things. If you don’t want negative search results, don’t do negative things,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (Cali.). “And to some of my colleagues across the aisle, if you’re getting bad press articles and bad search results, don’t blame Google or Facebook or Twitter, consider blaming yourself.”
(This post has been updated.)