A viral video produced by the news site SourceFed alleges that Google is manipulating its search results to suppress search phrases that could lead to negative results for 2016 Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The video asserts that the autocomplete function on the company’s ubiquitous search engine doesn’t return the expected results when users begin typing certain search phrases critical of the former Secretary of State.
For example, typing “Hillary Clinton cri” into Google auto-populates suggested search phrases like “Hillary Clinton crime reform” and “Hillary Clinton crime bill 1994.” It does not included phrases like “Hillary Clinton crime,” which would be more likely to pull up results critical of Clinton—like an article about her odds of being indicted in an email scandal currently being investigated by the FBI.
In contrast, SourceFed found, when the same “Hilary Clinton cri” search phrase is typed into rival search engines like Bing or Yahoo, the autocomplete function immediately spits out “Hillary Clinton crime.” The seven-minute clip asserts something very similar happens when a Google search for “Hillary Clinton ind” returns results for “Hillary Clinton Indiana” rather than “Hillary Clinton indictment.”
When SourceFed plotted all of these search phrases in Google Trends, a tool created by the Silicon Valley giant to show the prevalence of different search terms as they rise and fall over time, “Hillary Clinton crime” and “Hillary Clinton indictment” were far hotter than “Hillary Clinton crime bill 1994” or “Hillary Clinton Indiana.”
Autocomplete is not the same as search results themselves. Someone who actually completed a search on “Hillary Clinton cri” would get a bevy of results not just about her email scandal, but questions about Clinton’s criminality stretching back to Whitewater. However, the autocomplete search options are ones that Google’s billions of users around the world see on a daily basis, and they certainly do drive traffic.
“There’s clearly something wrong here, right?” asked SourceFed reporter Matt Lieberman in the video. “The intention is clear: Google is burying potential searches for terms that could have hurt Hillary Clinton in the primary elections over the past several months but manipulating recommendations on their site.”
For its part, Google pushed back hard against the assertion that it was actively manipulating auto-population results in favor of Clinton.
“Google Autocomplete does not favor any candidate or cause. Claims to the contrary simply misunderstand how Autocomplete works,” a Google spokesperson told the Daily Dot. “Our Autocomplete algorithm will not show a predicted query that is offensive or disparaging when displayed in conjunction with a person’s name. More generally, our autocomplete predictions are produced based on a number of factors including the popularity of search terms.”
The company’s search engine doesn’t autocomplete searches for “crime” or “indictment” when the term is attached to any individuals, even people famous for committing crimes.
Such as notorious gangster Al Capone:
Or disgraced President Richard Nixon:
It’s also true for controversial figures who are best known for actions that aren’t criminal:
Although “crimes” does auto-populate in the case of widely loathed “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli.
“We made this change a while ago following feedback that Autocomplete too often predicted offensive, hurtful or inappropriate queries about people. This filter operates according to the same rules no matter who the person is,” a company representative continued in a post on the Google’s Inside Search blog. “Autocomplete isn’t an exact science, and the output of the prediction algorithms changes frequently. Predictions are produced based on a number of factors including the popularity and freshness of search terms.”
These allegations aren’t that first time in recent months that a media organization has pointed out odd behavior in Google’s autocomplete function. In April, the Daily Dot noticed that searches for “is Ted Cruz” didn’t pull up results questioning if the Texas senator and erstwhile GOP presidential candidate was actually the Zodiac Killer, a reference to a popular absurdist internet meme.
In February, typing in “is Ted Cruz” into the Google search bar would auto-populate “is Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer” among the top suggested search phrases. However, in April, suggestions regarding the ironic accusations of Cruz’s history of being a serial killer no longer appeared.
As SourceFed notes in its video, it’s reasonable for people to be suspicious about Google’s intentions. Eric Schmidt—the chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company—is a major backer of The Groundwork, a data analytics company assisting the Clinton campaign. Controversial Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has spent recent years in London’s Ecuadorian embassy to avoid an ongoing Swedish investigation into sexual assault allegations, recently asserted that Google is “directly engaged in Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” asserting that “once Hillary Clinton becomes president, those people in Google … will be placed into positions around the new Clinton presidency.”
“If Google were manipulating search results it would be the single biggest scandal in the history of tech—to the point where it could kill the company,” said Jonathan Kressaty, co-founder of the online marketing firm Ringtrail who put the probability of Google actively biasing its results in Clinton’s favor at close to zero. “The way you can know Google isn’t biasing search results is just typing Hillary Clinton into the search bar and you’re going to get … [autocomplete suggestions] like age or email scandal or other unfavorable things about her.”
Here’s what comes up searching “Hillary Clinton” in incognito mode on Chrome:
Kressaty argues this type of deliberate manipulation would be extremely harmful to the company’s bottom line. Political campaigns are certain to spend billions of dollars on online advertising in this year alone. Not only would the public perception that Google is slanting ads based on a political bias decrease its usage with members of the public, it would almost certainly spook potential advertisers concerned the company was playing less fair than initially advertised.
As Rhea Drysdale, the CEO of the SEO management consulting firm Outspoken Media, notes in a blog post on Medium attacking the premise of the video, the viral nature of the video itself is having a significant effect on Google’s search results.
“Because SourceFed told you to look up these queries, they’ve just manipulated Google’s search results,” Drysdale wrote. “Think about that for a minute. Google Autocomplete is powered by user behavior, personalization, trends, and lots of other factors. By telling hundreds of thousands of people (and growing) to search for these queries, SourceFed has just sent Google data supporting a massive spike of interest in these terms.”
Drysdale added that Google doesn’t auto-populate similar search phrases for Trump related to his scandals. Typing “Donald Trump ra” doesn’t auto-populate as “Donald Trump racist” or “Donald Trump rape,” rather it offers far more neutral suggestions.
Representatives from SourceFed did not respond to a request for comment.
Regardless of whether Google is actively helping Clinton, it’s important to step back and see that the company has amassed enormous power over how people around the world access information—which, in turn, affects the politics of virtually every country on the planet. As of May 2016, Google has nearly 70 percent of the global market share for search engines. Its closest rival, Bing, is at less than 12 percent, with a cadre of others fighting over the scraps of what’s left.
Every one of Google’s decisions matters and, while Google’s choice to categorically exclude certain search phrases from auto-populating may have been intended as politically agnostic, it will ultimately have the effect of dampening some subset of users from making this particular search. What if one candidate in a race is more likely to be associated with criminality, while the other can’t seem to keep any facts straight. Google’s algorithm would block auto-populations of one but not the other.
That should give pause to everyone, regardless of their political stripe.
The obvious corollary here is the recent scandal around Facebook Trending Topics. According to a report published in Gizmodo last month, the Facebook workers in charge of determining what stories appeared on the Trending Topics sidebar “routinely suppressed conservative news.”
Facebook officials strongly denied the allegations, but perception of liberal bias shot right to the heart of the trust people place in an organization that, just like Google, has become such an essential part of people’s online lives. Facebook took aggressive steps to assure conservatives they weren’t being slighted, even going as far as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg holding a personal summit with a collection of leading right-leaning media figures.
Facebook’s concerns, much like Google’s, are more about reputation than they are about breaking any laws. As privately run online-content providers, both Facebook and Google have broad leeway in terms of what they choose to show users. If Google or Facebook decided to reconfigure all of their systems with the sole goal of helping Clinton defeat Trump in November, neither firm would be breaking any laws.
In fact, when the Daily Dot asked representative from the Federal Elections Commission, Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission about the issue earlier this year, none of the agencies saw this type of question as falling under its jurisdiction. The only time that rules could be triggered is if a political campaign worked directly and in conjunction with the online content provider to slant results in their direction. Even in that case, such an action wouldn’t be illegal; it would just have to be reported to the FEC as an in-kind donation.
“I’m quite certain that the Federal Election Commission has never considered in any formal way (rule-making, advisory opinions, enforcement actions) how federal campaign-finance laws would or would not apply to such activities,” Paul Ryan, deputy executive director of the campaign finance watchdog group the Campaign Legal Center, explained. “So if Facebook or Google or another internet business were to manipulate their public interface for the benefit of a candidate, the company would be sailing in uncharted legal waters.”
However, if you want some information about Clinton’s email scandal, this article is probably a good place to start.
Update 7:33pm CT: The story has been updated to include information from Google’s Inside Search blog post.
Update 6:27pm CT, June 11: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Julian Assange has been in London’s Ecuadorean embassy due to a Swedish investigation, not because of formal charges.