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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

Trump is out to get Google. But is Google out to get him?

“Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology,” Google said.
“Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology,” Google said.Benjamin Quinton/New York Times

President Trump thinks Google is out to get him. If true, it’s pretty scary. Even scarier is that we don’t know whether Trump is right, and we have no way of finding out.

Trump lit this fire in the usual manner — on Twitter, in a pair of outraged messages Tuesday morning.

“Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out,” the president tweeted.

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“Illegal? 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. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!”

And just for good measure, Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, followed up a few hours later with news the administration is “taking a look” at regulating Google.

So let’s start with the source of that “96%” figure. It comes from an admittedly unscientific survey conducted by Paula Bolyard, a columnist at the conservative PJ Media website, that was picked up by conservative TV host Lou Dobbs on Fox Monday night. Bolyard used a chart created by another conservative journalist, Sharyl Attkisson, to rate various news organizations as liberal or conservative. Then Bolyard ran searches for news stories about Trump and found that the vast majority of results came from publications on the left side of the line.

But take a close look at Attkisson’s chart. On the left side, you’ll find sites such as The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Bloomberg, and USA Today. On the right side, you’ll find The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, the New York Post, the Drudge Report, National Review, RedState, Breitbart.

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Notice anything? A handful of her right-of-center choices are major news outlets; the rest are niche publications that don’t attract a broad mainstream audience. Even the best-known of them aren’t the highest-ranked sources for news. On the left side of the line, you find the bulk of American mainstream media, sites that are read by tens of millions of us, regardless of our politics.

I confirmed this with a visit to Alexa, a company owned by Amazon that tracks the most popular Internet sites. On Alexa’s list of the world’s top 50 news sites, hardly any of Attkisson’s conservative sites make the cut. Fox News is seventh, but the Drudge Report is 19th, the Wall Street Journal is 20th, the New York Post is 23rd.

Meanwhile on the left, CNN ranks at No. 3, trailing only Google’s own news page and, in first place, the popular Internet hangout Reddit. The New York Times is fourth, the Washington Post 10th, Bloomberg is 16th, and USA Today is 18th.

Here’s an even more important criterion: How many other Internet sites link back to these news sites? The more sites that link to, say, the New York Times, the higher the Times’s ranking in Google’s search algorithm.

It turns out that about 304,000 sites worldwide link to the New York Times. That’s a massive vote of confidence that tells the Google algorithm to prominently display stories from the Times because people trust it. CNN has 210,000 linkbacks, the Washington Post has 112,000, and USA Today has 92,000.

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By contrast, the Wall Street Journal has 128,000 linkbacks. But Fox News has just 76,000, the New York Post has 41,000, and the Drudge Report a measly 8,000.

In short, Google’s algorithm lets the Internet vote on which news sources it trusts the most, and few right-leaning sites make the cut. If you don’t like it, don’t blame Google. Blame the millions who’d rather get their news from the Times or the Post than from Breitbart.

Still, this doesn’t prove that Trump is wrong. For one thing, just because a news source is more popular doesn’t make it more trustworthy, or more accurate. In the buildup to the Iraq War, mainstream media published stories that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be based on faulty intelligence. Meanwhile, staunch right-winger Pat Buchanan used his obscure magazine, The American Conservative, to argue against the war. Maybe we’d have been better off if Buchanan’s little rag had come up more often in Google searches.

And then there’s the problem of the black box. That’s what engineers call a machine that does something wonderful, but nobody knows how. Google’s algorithms are the secret sauce that has made its parent company Alphabet one of the wealthiest in history. Understandably, their inner workings are secret. But that makes Google Search the ultimate black box. Its search results shape our understanding of the world around us, but we don’t understand exactly how. So we can never be sure that Google isn’t secretly manipulating us.

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I don’t believe there’s a feature in the Google algorithm that does downrate conservative news outlets. But there could be. For that matter, Google may be trying to reshape our thinking on everything from feminism to the designated hitter rule.

Google vows it’s doing no such thing. “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology,” the company said in a statement issued Tuesday morning. “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.”


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.