Update (6/10/16, 3:30 p.m.): Rhea Drysdale, CEO of Outspoken Media, has written a rebuttal of SourceFed’s claims in a post on Medium.
Drysdale shows counterexamples involving Donald Trump where popular search terms that make him look bad aren’t always Google’s top suggestion. She also shows that when typing “hillary clinton” into Google, “hillary clinton email” is one of the top suggestions. She argues that SourceFed’s methods were sub-par and produced inconclusive results.
“The story isn’t that Google favors Hillary Clinton,” she writes, “it’s that Google is a complex algorithm that presents information in many ways and at this point that includes artificial intelligence!” Read Drysdale’s full rebuttal here.
Meanwhile, Matt Cutts, former head of the Web Spam team at Google, wrote on Twitter that SourceFed’s claims were “simply false.” He wrote that “lots of people searching for things about HRC search for [hillary X], not [hillary clinton X].” You can read his full thread of comments here.
Original Story: According to an investigation by SourceFed, “Google has been actively altering search recommendations in favor of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
When searching on Google, their autocomplete feature gives suggestions as to what it thinks you are searching for. These suggestions are believed to be based, at least in part, on the popularity of things actually searched for. SourceFed conducted an in-depth investigation of Google-suggested search terms related to Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and compared them with other popular search engines. They discovered striking differences in regards to Clinton.
First, SourceFed conducted a test with the partial phrase “hillary clinton cri”. When typed into Google, the suggestions, in order, were “hillary clinton crime reform,” “hillary clinton crisis” and “hillary clinton crime bill 1994.” There is no mention of Hillary Clinton’s alleged crimes or her criminal investigation by the FBI. However, when SourceFed tested this same search term on Google’s competitors Yahoo and Bing, the suggestions were almost all related to whether or not Clinton has ever committed a crime. The top suggestions were “hillary clinton crimes,” “hillary clinton criminal” and “hillary clinton criminal record.”
SourceFed brought up the possibility that these differences could be due to people just naturally searching different things on Google than on Bing or Yahoo. To remove this possibility, SourceFed compared the search term “hillary clinton criminal reform,” Google’s top suggestion, and the term “hillary clinton crimes” on Google Trends, which builds graphs that show the popularity of search terms in Google over time. “hillary clinton criminal reform” was searched so rarely that Google could not build a graph for it, whereas “hillary clinton crimes” as a search term has skyrocketed in popularity over the past year.
SourceFed then repeated this experiment a second time, instead focusing on terms related to Clinton’s potential indictment by the FBI. They typed “hillary clinton ind” into Google and were given the suggestions “hillary clinton indiana,” “hillary clinton india,” and “hillary clinton independent voters.” However, when they typed the same search term, “hillary clinton ind,” into Bing and Yahoo the top suggestions were “hillary clinton indictment,” “hillary clinton indicted,” “hillary clinton indictment 2016” and “Hillary Clinton indictment coming.”
SourceFed again compared one of Google’s top suggestions, “hillary clinton india,” with “hillary clinton indictment” in Google Trends. They found that “people were searching for ‘hillary clinton indictment’ eight times more often than ‘hillary clinton india.’”
SourceFed then compared negative search terms related to Sanders and Trump on Google, Bing and Yahoo. When they searched “bernie sanders soc” all three sites gave suggestions related to Sanders being accused of being a socialist. When they searched “donald trump rac” all three gave suggestions to Trump being racist.
“The intention is clear, Google is burying potential searches for terms that could’ve hurt Hillary Clinton in the primary elections over the past several months by manipulating recommendations on their site,” SourceFed concluded. They went onto to try and determine any direct links between Google and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Their investigation led them to Eric Schmidt. Schmidt is the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and the former CEO of Google. He is also a major funder of the startup The Groundwork. The Groundwork “is an investment by Schmidt to ensure that Hillary Clinton has the technological and engineering prowess to win the election,” SourceFed reported, citing Wired. The Groundwork specializes in “data analytics and targeted outreach, and they are one of the Clinton campaign’s priciest contractors.” In the second quarter of 2015, The Groundwork billed the Clinton campaign “over $177,000.” SourceFed also pointed out that Schmidt works for the Pentagon as the head of the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, noting:
While all these connections do not prove explicit criminal wrongdoing, they do showcase a man who has a clear invested interest in how our country is run, and is actively funding one candidate to run it, while the company he advises is warping search results in her favor.
SourceFed emphasized that they “are not accusing any individuals of any crimes. If this warping of search terms is as intentional as it appears to be, Google didn’t break any laws by doing so. It’s deeply unethical and wrong, but not illegal.” They also highlighted that there is no indication that “Hillary Clinton or any members of her campaign pushed for or knew about this practice.”
SourceFed emphasized the effect manipulating search terms can have by citing a study done by Dr. Robert Epstein, psychologist at the American Institute of Behavioral Research. His study presented a mock election to different groups of people, but gave the groups the ability to search for info about candidates in the mock election beforehand. The different groups of people were fed different search results making different candidates look better, while a control group was given untampered search results. Dr. Epstein found that “he was able to swing voters up to 48 percent for whatever side had more positive [search] results.”
This seeming manipulation by Google in favor of Clinton’s campaign is unsettling. Watch SourceFed’s full video report on the matter below.