“Bury?” Not exactly, but almost as bad. Employees at Google certainly brainstormed about their role in the outcome of the 2016 election and wanted to recalculate their algorithms to deal with “false equivalences,” e-mails obtained by The Daily Caller show. One engineer specifically called out the Daily Caller and Breitbart as offenders in the “false equivalency” issue, but didn’t argue for “burying” them as much as reclassifying them to, well, ignore them altogether:
Communications obtained by TheDCNF show that internal Google discussions went beyond expressing remorse over Clinton’s loss to actually discussing ways Google could prevent Trump from winning again.
“This was an election of false equivalencies, and Google, sadly, had a hand in it,” Google engineer Scott Byer wrote in a Nov. 9, 2016, post reviewed by TheDCNF.
Byer falsely labeled The Daily Caller and Breitbart as “opinion blogs” and urged his coworkers to reduce their visibility in search results.
“How many times did you see the Election now card with items from opinion blogs (Breitbart, Daily Caller) elevated next to legitimate news organizations? That’s something that can and should be fixed,” Byer wrote.
“I think we have a responsibility to expose the quality and truthfulness of sources – because not doing so hides real information under loud noises,” he continued.
Before we get to the meat of this, reflect a moment on what this says about how some Google engineers view their customers. TDC and Breitbart both report and opine on news, and their point of view is very well known. Do they think their customers don’t know that? The entire basis of this discussion is patronizing, to say the least.
The solution being presented here wasn’t to deliberately bury search results in general for these and other conservative sites. It was to declassify them as “news” outlets. Google and other search engines have a “news” category that allows users to narrow results down from a general sweep of the internet to a more specific set of returns from media orgs. It’s a useful filter, especially for those who want to fact-check items reported by other media sites.
Dropping TDC, Breitbart, and other opinion-media sites from the “news” category wouldn’t “bury” hits in their general search functions; they just wouldn’t come up at all when using that filter. If they want to narrow that filter, though, why stop with conservative sites? What about similarly situated media organizations like MSNBC, Vox, HuffPost, and others that employ reporters while maintaining their own political slant?
To their credit, that question did come up in the responses Byer received in the internal discussions. “MSNBC is not more legit than Drudge just because Rachel Maddow may be more educated / less deplorable / closer to our views, than, say Sean Hannity,” wrote one engineer. “By ranking ‘legitimacy’ you’ll just introduce more conspiracy theories.” Actually, as the exchange demonstrates, it would have substantiated allegations and moved them out of the conspiracy-theory realm.
In apparent response to this internal debate, Google launched its fact-check feature late last year. It predictably went down in flames almost immediately over inaccuracies and the very clear bias it showed in aiming at conservative points of view:
There were two main problems with the fact-check widget, which appeared on the sidebar of Google’s search results for very few sites and publications.
First, the legitimate outlets chosen were virtually all ones with conservatives audiences. The Daily Caller, for example, was given such treatment, while sites like Vox, Slate, The Huffington Post, Mother Jones and several others clearly on the left side of the political spectrum were not.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, many of the fact-checks were wrong.
The performance of Google’s fact-check widget gives us a pretty clear idea what their attempts to reform the “News” filter would have produced. This is precisely what happens when a small clique of people gain control over the gatekeeping of information, a status quo ante that legacy media enjoyed until the Internet. Google seems to have wanted to recreate that with themselves as the gatekeepers, which is a good lesson for the rest of us — and perhaps a good enough reason to start talking seriously about enforcing anti-trust regulation in the tech sector.