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Is or Isn’t Google Politically Neutral? Senators From the Left and the Right Ponder the Question

Emily McPhie

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WASHINGTON, July 22, 2019 — With great power comes great responsibility. And now Google, which insists that it is not slanting search results based upon political leanings, is under attack from both the left and the right.

At a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing last Tuesday – titled “Google and Censorship through Search Engines” – Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, took the opportunity to repeat his oft-made claims about Google’s allegedly anti-conservative bias.

Cruz, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, highlighted his allegations from a Monday letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Monday: Google and other major tech platforms unfairly enforce their moderation policies to silence conservative voices.

This supposed censorship is reason for Congress to rethink the legal protections of digital platforms, said Cruz, claiming that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was a trade that offered legal immunity in exchange for political neutrality.

If big tech cannot provide “clear, compelling data and evidence” of their neutrality, “there’s no reason on earth why Congress should give them a special subsidy through Section 230,” he said.

In actual fact, of course, Section 230 does not include a requirement of political or other neutrality. Online platforms are legally permitted to moderate content at their discretion while being safeguarded from liability.

Google’s mission is to be politically neutral, said a company official

Providing a platform for a broad range of information is core to not only Google’s mission but also to its business model, said Google witness Karan Bhatia, a company vice president. Bhatia argued that it simply wouldn’t make business sense for Google to moderate based on political affiliation.

Besides alienating users, it would erode their trust.

“Google is not politically biased—indeed, we go to extraordinary lengths to build our products and enforce our policies in an analytically objective, apolitical way,” Bhatia said. “Our platforms reflect the online world that exists.”

“Claims of anti-conservative bias in the tech industry are baseless,” agreed Ranking Member Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. “Study after study has debunked suggestions of political bias on the part of Facebook, Google, and Twitter.”

She cited a number of studies that, she said, proved her point:

  • In June, The Economist released the findings of a year-long analysis of search results in Google’s News tab that found no evidence that Google biases results against conservatives.
  • A 37-week study into alleged conservative censorship on Facebook completed by Media Matters in April showed that left-leaning pages were actually outperformed by right-leaning pages in terms of overall user interaction.
  • In March, data analysts at Twitter performed a five-week analysis of all tweets sent by members of Congress and found no statistically significant difference between the number of times a tweet by a Democratic member was viewed as compared to a tweet by a Republican member.

Different ways of understanding ‘algorithmic bias’

Additionally, perception of algorithmic bias may stem from the complex nature of the algorithms in question, said Francesca Tripodi, a sociology professor at James Madison University. Simple shifts in the phrasing of a Google search can dramatically change the results. For example, whether a user searches for “NFL ratings up” or “NFL ratings down,” they will find content to support their query.

“What we get from Google depends primarily on what we search, and depending on what we search, conservatism thrives online,” Tripodi said.

A simple search for a person or organization will usually return straightforward data about that person or organization. The first three Google search results for “PragerU,” a conservative organization that publishes educational content, are the main PragerU website, Twitter account, and YouTube channel.

Results becomes more complicated when websites and publications use search engine optimization tools to game the results. A search for “AOC,” referring to liberal congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will return news results from primarily conservative publications, due to marketing strategies like the fact that Fox News uses “AOC” as a search tag 6.7 times more than MSNBC, Tripodi said.

Likewise, the top YouTube results for terms like “social justice” or “gender identity” are from conservative sources. If left on autoplay, the algorithm will not steer viewers to more liberal sources but rather play a steady stream of conservative views.

Some senator were simply persuaded by these explanations about tagging and volume of content. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., for example, suggested that a truly neutral algorithm would simply promote all news results equally “whether the article be from the Huffington Post or Breitbart.”

Factors that get considered—and screened out—by search engines

But the reality is more complicated.

Google’s search engine analyzes more than 200 factors to decide which results to display and in what order. Among these are the number of links that come to a site, how fast the pages download, how recent the content is, how well the pages are linked internally, and so on.

Political ideology is not a factor, say Google officials. But publishing material that Google deems to be a conspiracy theory – or simply misleading and factually incorrect information –could lower a web site’s Google rankings.

Cruz pointed to the fact that some of PragerU’s videos are unavailable in YouTube’s restricted mode as proof that the platform discriminates against conservative media.

Both Cruz and PragerU co-founder Dennis Prager highlighted one video in particular that has been restricted, entitled “The Ten Commandments: What You Should Know.” This restriction is “so absurd as to be hilarious,” Prager said, adding that the “only possible explanation” was that Google disliked PragerU for being an influential conservative publication.

Another possible explanation is that the video contains depictions of violence and Nazi imagery, which fall under the category of “potentially objectionable content” that YouTube’s restricted mode is designed to screen.

(Screenshots from PragerU's video.)

Restricted videos are only filtered out for the 1.5 percent of YouTube users that choose to watch in restricted mode, said Bhatia, emphasizing that every single PragerU video is available to the 98.5 percent of viewers who use the default settings.

“Those who want to profit from YouTube must adhere to their terms of service,” said Tripodi.

Moreover, only 23 percent of PragerU’s videos are restricted, said Hirono. By comparison, restrictions apply to 28 percent of the Huffington Post’s videos, 30 percent of the History Channel’s videos, 45 percent of the Daily Show’s videos, and 61 percent of progressive socialist-leaning group The Young Turks’ videos.

Senators call on Google to fix the ‘real problems’ with the platform

“Brow-beating the tech industry for a problem that does not exist also draws attention away from the real problems with Google and other tech companies,” Hirono said. “As long as we’re busy making Google defend itself from bogus claims of anti-conservative bias, it has no incentive to address these real issues.”

Twitter has avoided using the proactive, algorithmic approach it used to remove ISIS-related content to also rid the platform of white supremacist content because it is afraid that it might also catch content posted by Republican politicians, according to a report by Vice.

Hirono referenced these stories and more, arguing that “fears of being tarred as ‘biased’ have made tech companies hesitant to deal with the real problems of racist and harassing content on their platforms.”

The platform should instead be focusing on solving problem of metadata being used to amplify hate speech, pedophilia, conspiracy theories, and disinformation, Tripodi said.

Hirono agreed, citing a recent Wall Street Journal examination that found that videos with potentially lethal content such as anti-vaccination conspiracies or fake claims for cancer cures are often viewed millions of times.

Google should prioritize devoting resources to solving real issues like those uncovered by a June investigation from The New York Times, Hirono continued, which showed that YouTube’s recommendation engine served as a roadmap leading pedophiles to find videos of younger and younger girls.

Bhatia said that the platform is fixing these problems through improving its machine learning tools and that dramatic improvement is occurring as technology progresses. It’s a difficult process because of the enormous volume of content being constantly added to the site.

“You can’t simply unleash the monster and then say it’s too big to control,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “You have a moral responsibility, even if you have that legal protection,” he said, referring to Section 230 immunity.

(Photo of hearing by Emily McPhie.)

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