Why Trump Is Suddenly Attacking Google
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump turned his Twitter bullhorn on Alphabet Inc.’s Google last week, accusing the search giant of suppressing positive stories about him and favoring news outlets he deems to be liberal. He doubled down later, telling reporters that Google, Facebook and Twitter were “really trying to silence a very large part of this country” and were “treading on very, very troubled territory.” His comments have raised new questions about how web searches work and whether there’s anything a president can do to change them.
1. Why is Trump complaining about Google searches?
Perhaps because he heard something on TV. Conservatives for months have accused Google and social media giants of tweaking their opaque algorithms to suppress right-wing views in an attempt to shut them out of the online discourse. In April, Congress even held a confusing hearing on this issue. On Aug. 27, Fox Business TV aired a segment on a report from a conservative blogger who said most searches for “Trump news” returned results from news organizations the blogger considered liberal. The next morning, Trump was tweeting about the report.
2. How does Google actually rank news?
Google News, its curated list of articles and videos, works about the same way as Google’s normal search algorithm. The more an article is being cited in links across the web, and the more prominently the search terms appear in that article, the higher it will rank in news and search. Political ideology isn’t a factor, the company says. The search giant tries to model the world as it is, so if most articles being published and read focus on a certain aspect of Trump’s presidency, most of the search results will, too. Google’s algorithm incorporates what it calls “authoritativeness” -- a murky term that essentially means news sources with a long history of producing original content will appear higher than a brand-new blogger who hasn’t published or been read much. Search results show up the same for all users, regardless of their previous online activity -- which Google tracks as part of its advertising business.
3. What’s an algorithm?
A set of complex mathematical equations used to figure out what people are looking for when they type something into a search bar. The goal is to deliver results that best match the inquiry, determined on a range of factors including how often key words appear on web pages. Google changes its algorithm thousands of times a year and hides the formula from the public, in part, experts say, to keep people from learning how to unfairly game it. The opacity is part of what invites criticism from people across the political spectrum, because there’s no way of knowing exactly what goes into producing the search results.
4. What could Trump do about Google News?
Not much. Google News is squarely protected by the first amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech. Trump has mused about expanding libel laws, but that hasn’t resulted in any real policy. The Federal Trade Commission could investigate Google as part of its right to police deceptive advertising, but that would require stretching the definition of the agency’s power. Some have called for stricter enforcement of anti-monopoly laws on Google and Facebook, which together dominate the online advertising industry. That hasn’t materialized either, and splitting up the online giants wouldn’t necessary change how Google News works.
5. So is there any threat to Google?
Trump is the president, so the company needs to take his complaints seriously. Google has worked hard to keep from getting dragged into the broader political firestorm over data privacy and foreign manipulation that Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. found themselves in over the past year. On Wednesday, Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg will testify in the U.S. Senate about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but Google has refused to send CEO Sundar Pichai, as the committee requested. That, along with the Trump tweets, could pull Google deeper into the political controversy.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg News on how the First Amendment ties Trump’s hands in “dealing” with Google.
- Tech website The Verge described the April Congressional hearings on censorship of conservative viewpoints as a “complete disaster.”
- In Bloomberg Opinion, Shira Ovide worries that Trump’s “illegitimate gripes” will drown out legitimate efforts to make tech companies more accountable.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.