Back in June, there was a brief flurry of excitement when the pop culture and news channel SourceFed published a YouTube video claiming to show how Google—unlike competitors Bing and Yahoo!—was manipulating auto-complete suggestions in its search bar to promote favorable searches relating to Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump and
It was noteworthy enough that Google had to release a statement, detailing policy of suppressing offensive auto-complete suggestions in association with a person’s name.
It didn’t end there. Psychologist (and former chief editor of Psychology Today) Robert Epstein, conducted his own study, the results of which were released this week.
Using proxy servers, to minimize bias derived from personalized results, Epstein’s team looked at Google auto-suggestions in responses to hundreds of election-related search terms. The conclusion:
Generally speaking, we are finding that [SourceFed] was right: It is somewhat difficult to get the Google search bar to suggest negative searches related to Mrs. Clinton or to make any Clinton-related suggestions when one types a negative search term. Bing and Yahoo, on the other hand, often show a number of negative suggestions in response to the same search terms. Bing and Yahoo seem to be showing us what people are actually searching for; Google is showing us something else — but what, and for what purpose?
The answer, according to Epstein, is that users are more likely to click on negative-seeming results than positive, and on the assumption that Google is supporting Clinton’s candidacy it would have a motive to suppress positive suggestions.
Epstein, whose has had personal struggles with Google, has hardly been an advocate for the brand, authoring articles like “Google’s Hypocrisy” and, last month, “How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election.”
Epstein’s research made the Republican and Clinton conspiracy theory rounds, as well as getting Russian media saturation (Epstein’s research was published on Sputnik today), but general interest media was dismissive. And for good reason.
There are a number of problems with all this, not least—as Epstein himself if aware—replication. Unscientifically, I tried typing “Hillary Clinton” into a Google search bar, and immediately got these suggestions, including “Hillary Clinton dead” and “Hillary Clinton age”:
Okay, so I’m not using a proxy server, but the second problem is precisely this: Neither are most Google users. If Google auto-complete suggestions are shaped by a user’s past search activity, it hardly makes sense to investigate the allegation that the Google is nefariously overriding those results by using proxy servers to conduct searches.
Finally, there’s the background plausibility problem. Believing Epstein’s results means believing that the corporation is prepared to risk its credibility and that leak-proof teams of Google engineers are hard at work under the hood. All in the cause, presumably, of trying to sway the ever-shrinking population of genuinely undecided voters (in states that matter). Google would be running a high risk for an uncertain return—not least by adding substance to Donald Trump’s concerns about the election being rigged.
Finally, there’s not a universal consensus about what constitutes “bad” search results. Epstein’s suggestions are not entirely convincing as proof. And Google is on record that their auto-suggest, and indeed their search results are based on a proprietary algorithm. This is something that impacts everyone.
Google is, among other things, a publisher. There’s nothing to stop Google promoting and lauding an electoral campaign without the veil of secrecy (newspapers do it all the time). If it can incorporate Yma Sumac into its logo, why not the former Secretary of State? Such a brazen act could lead to millions of users defecting, of course, so it would be surprising to see them do that.
Clinton chicanery aside, there is something going on here that is worth monitoring: What power should Google give itself? How is Google’s algorithm impacting what people see and find on a daily basis. Does Google have the power to shape our worldview ongoing? These are questions worth asking.
But a political conspiracy theory is much more fun.