Report: Google News' search results aren't rigged but they are biased

A group called AllSides put out a report Tuesday which concludes that Google News’ search results are biased toward the left end of the political spectrum. However, the report also states that this bias seems to reflect the general bias of sites which are popular on the web and doesn’t represent evidence that Google is intentionally skewing results. In other words, Google’s results are biased but they aren’t rigged. From USA Today:

John Gable, CEO of AllSides and author of the study, said the bias is the result of “most news online and most news consumption online (being) from a left perspective.”

AllSides specializes in identifying media bias for the purpose of providing balanced perspectives. The group uses a media bias ratings based on popular opinion to rank media outlets as either left, right or center.

“If you look at where people get news online and you rate it, most of it is coming from the left,” Gable said.

He said Google search results come from what is largely a “popularity algorithm,” meaning that viewpoints more people have are more likely to be highlighted. As a result, viewpoints that are outside the majority don’t appear as high up in search results…

“If their role is just to reflect the internet, they’re doing a fine job,” he said. “… If they think their job is to empower people to decide for themselves, they actually need to make a change.”

So how does AllSides determine which news sources are left and right? The answer is that they don’t. As you can see on this page, the group asks people to rate their own bias (left or right) and then asks them to rate the bias of articles from various sites and averages how different groups (left, right, and center) respond to various articles. The result is a master list which rates various news sites from far left (HuffPost) to far right (Breitbart). Some sites fall in the center (CNBC) while others lean left (Buzzfeed) or lean right (Hot Air). Here’s a chart from the report showing a sample of results:

You can, of course, take issue with any of the conclusions in that graphic or the master list it is based on but the idea is that people on all sides are having a say about the spectrum. It’s not the opinion of one person or a small group of people. So starting from that foundation, the site looked at Google’s search results and found this:

This study completed 123 different measurements of the political bias of Google News and Google News search results over 14 days from August 23 to September 5, 2018. This produced three summary views of the political bias of Google News…

The aggregate result indicates that the overall bias of Google News is 65% left, 20% center, 16% right.

Because the majority of traffic goes to the very first links displayed on Google, with an estimated one-­third going to the first result, the position of a link on a page is extremely important.

While our overall analysis takes this into account by measuring the bias of just the top 5 results separately from the rest of the first page, it is also important to consider where the first result from a left, center or right source appears. Being in the very first position is extremely impactful.

Here is the average position of the first result from the left, center or right:

● Left: average 1.7 (one of the top 2 results)
● Center: 5.3 (averages to be in the top 5 or 6 results)
● Right: 12.2 (this is below “the fold” meaning that users have to scroll down the window on their computer screen before they see their first news article from the right)

The report concludes:

These results that show a strong bias for left media over right media are also consistent with past research and observations by AllSides. AllSides analyzes the news on a daily basis and have often found it difficult to find perspectives from the right when using Google News…

This apparent bias could easily be the natural and unintended consequence of its algorithms and the fact that most news outlets, as well as most journalists, have political views that represent the left side of the US political spectrum. Online news consumers are younger and lean farther Left than the average American, and that directly impacts which articles Google’s algorithm selects and how high it places them on the page.

This study does not suggest that there is intentional favoritism for media sources from the left, nor does this study suggest the opposite. It only demonstrates that the resulting choice of links that Google News provides do have a significant bias in favor of the left.

So there is strong evidence that Google’s search results favor left-wing news sources but this may be because that’s what online news readers are looking at the most on their own. To put it another way, Google may be reflecting a bias rather than directing one. The full report with a lot more detail on the methodology and findings is 39-pages long and can be found here.

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