Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my toys will break.
So none of the other kids can use ‘em….
- Shel Silverstein
Early yesterday morning, the President of the United States of America — thumbs all aflutter after a TiVo’d Lou Dobbs segment about an unscientific media study carried out by a non-expert right-wing blogger — accused Google via tweet of rigging search results against positive conservative coverage of himself.
Well, no. But within hours Trump’s chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow announced the White House would explore ways to regulate Google. It took less than twelve hours for the White House to greenlight an official investigation into an unfounded and self-labeled “unscientific” conspiracy theory that has serious first amendment implications, in order to silence critics and promote better press.
This is obviously insane. In 2018 it should go without saying that Google results come not from surgical manual interference but from algorithms. Those algorithms weigh 200+ variables, such as relevance, recency, popularity, backlinks, reliability, and metadata such as geographical location and a little bit of personalization. In a moment I’ll lay it out in one paragraph, but here’s what Google said in a statement:
When users type queries into the Google Search bar, our goal is to make sure they receive the most relevant answers in a matter of seconds. Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology. Every year, we issue hundreds of improvements to our algorithms to ensure they surface high-quality content in response to users’ queries. We continually work to improve Google Search and we never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.
It’s digital marketing 101, and sadly we have to admit we can’t expect Trump to understand it. The president should, however, at least understand the first amendment.
Funny thing is, Trump’s complaint is a self-own: “My, what an ugly mirror!” A number of right-wing dingbats (almost all of them white dudes) share the complaint: The reason they’re not popular is because the mainstream media suppresses them, not because perhaps they’re unlikable jackasses who peddle crazy and often cruel fact-free hokum on shady low-traffic blogs about things not many people can bring themselves to even care about, let alone believe, let alone read, let alone click on.
Google isn’t hurting you, my dude. You’re just not popular.
But I used to work in digital marketing, and I know there actually is a hidden trick here: The right wing does some content rigging of its own. And ironically enough, Trump promoted it the same day he went after Google. So here’s an easy way to understand what’s going on, from search engines to the first amendment to, believe it or not, mass shootings.
The unscientific study from Dobbs’s report somehow concluded that 96% of Google news results for “Trump” were “National Left-Wing Media” sites. Before we even question the stat, we have to question its premise: What is “left-wing media”?
Well, the writer, without explaining why she made this decision, went by a chart created by right-winger and Sinclair TV personality Sheryl Attkisson, which places the Washington Post and the New York Times further to the left than it does InfoWars to the right. So that explains the ridiculous skew. But even if the results weren’t so perversely wrong, is there some truth to her basic point?
No. Here’s the one-paragraph explanation:
It’s not complicated. Google’s algorithm favors certain characteristics of a site: how much traffic it gets; how many other sites link to their content; how much content they publish; how reliable the content is; how recent the articles have been published or updated; etc etc. Companies spend lots of time and money tailoring their content to this algorithm in order to inflate their Google rankings. (This is called Search Engine Optimization, and you can learn all about it here.) We can therefore expect a site’s search rank to line up fairly (not always) well with its Alexa rankings, which are based on site traffic.
Of the major US networks, CNN, which ranked highest in this stupid study, also ranks highest on Alexa. (RIGGED!) CNN is followed by the New York Times and Fox News. The Washington Post is next, then Forbes, Huffington Post, Bloomberg, and CNBC. Google’s algorithm also considers things such as reliability, which we can see in Alexa’s news site rankings, which place the Drudge Report and the Wall Street Journal at numbers 19 and 20, respectively. In my own “Trump” news-a-Googlin’, Drudge didn’t show up on the first twenty or so pages, after which I got bored, but the WSJ appeared in the very first cluster of articles. WSJ is punching way above its Alexa weight, so its safe to say Google’s algorithm considers a lot more than raw traffic, and if you think Drudge and WSJ have the same editorial standards, it’s amazing you’ve hate-read this far into my article.
Bottom line: The small sites that offer pro-Trump opinion and analysis are objectively unpopular, and they present unreliable content at a volume nowhere that of the enormous newsrooms at the Times and Fox. Google simply reflects this. Fox News and WSJ appear exactly where they should: At the top.
Hell, there’s a very obvious next step: Look at the other side. Google also “buries” articles from small left-wing opinion-heavy sites such as ThinkProgress, Daily Kos, Shareblue, Palmer Report, etc. In fact, content from the noble and unabashedly (fact-based!) left-wing publication you’re consuming right now won’t pop up at the top of a Trump news search, and I’d be nuts to expect it would. If it did, I’d agree there probably was some content rigging involved.
Oh wait, there is.
Though Google doesn’t game outlets, the outlets can game Google. Last year I wrote an investigative piece how right-wing content farms can overwhelm Google’s algorithm. Here’s an example from that piece that illustrates how and why small right-wing opinion sites create and coordinate an overwhelming amount of similar content.
In May of last year someone in my Facebook feed was screeching about how Obama had once leaked classified information about the Bin Laden raid, and it got people killed. I’d never heard anything about that, and the raid was six years prior. So did this guy just have an incredible vindictive memory, or was he getting some talking points somewhere? I duly Googled “obama classified information bin laden.” Here’s what I got at the time:
Look at the dates on those articles: May 16 and 17 of 2017. The Bin Laden raid, again, was six years before then. But why were so many white nationalist sites suddenly writing about this story (which had immediately been debunked), and all at once? Why did those articles exist in 2017?
Well you might remember that on May 15, 2017, the day before these articles started appearing, the Washington Post broke the story that President Trump had shared top secret intel with the Russian Foreign Minister and Russian Ambassador. In the Oval Office. In front of Russian state media. Instead of defending the indefensible, the right-wing bullshit factory lurched to life with a broad, coordinated “whatabout?” counterattack. That bullshit story about Obama’s “dangerous” classified “leak” suddenly clogged the right-wing media sphere. Some of those articles were even cut-and-paste jobs. There’s no effort here, no real journalism, and nothing new or original: It’s just content. Tons of content, made quickly, made together, all spewing the same lies, and optimized for search.
At the bottom of that results page, there’s a redeeming link: PolitiFact. Thing is, it’s at the bottom. Alexa ranks PolitiFact much higher (at the time ~10,000 globally) than the hit just above it, “trumptrainnews.com” (at the time ~128,000 globally). You’d think a gap that big would work in PolitiFact’s favor, but it doesn’t, not to someone who knows what they’re doing.
And it’s happening again, right now.
O Irony, Will You Never Die?
About twelve hours after Trump accused Google of rigging its results, he tweeted out yet another conspiracy, stating it as fact:
This story is three years old. (Sound familiar?) Minutes after Trump’s tweet landed, I ran a Google search for “China hack Clinton server,” and here’s what I got. (Look familiar?)
It’s out of the same playbook as the Obama classified leak story last year. And like that story, it’s unsurprisingly also bullshit. But why would all these right-wing sites start rewrapping it at once? A few days ago, Michael Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis said on MSNBC that Cohen knew Trump had advance notice of Russia’s DNC hack.
Also, if China really did hack the U.S. Secretary of State, it should really go without saying that the President of the United States should be pissed at China and take action. Instead, Trump responds the other way, instructing the DOJ to take action not against China but against Clinton. He doesn’t care at all about our national security. That’s insane. He’s the f***ing president.
Which brings me to the white American male’s pathological entitlement to power.
From Searching to Shooting
Before this episode we had the president voicing the complaint from right-wing nuts that Twitter was “shadow banning” them. (“Shadow banning” means curtailing the reach of their posts.) Shocker: Not true. You probably just suck, and are testing Twitter’s algorithm with your online behavior.
This is, of course, another thread in the sprawling baby quilt adult white men have over the last few years been weaving for themselves. It’s pretty rich that it comes from the same camp that praises capitalism and bitches about participation trophies and affirmative action. Childish, sure, but it’s also toxic, and not just in the abstract: This Monday in Jacksonville, Florida, a young white man lost a Madden video game tournament, so he carried out a mass shooting of his competitors, leaving two people dead and a dozen injured. If there’s a better metaphor for America right now than a mass shooting as remedy for a petty slight in a virtual world, please send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. But it’s not a joke: You can draw a line from one straight to the other.
Look: The constitution grants everyone the right to speak, but not the right to be heard. If you barf up refried lies and long-debunked conspiracies about Sandy Hook or Clinton’s emails, Google doesn’t owe you a seat at the top no matter who you are. This also should go without saying, but it’s not within the president’s constitutional power, and certainly not in the country’s interest, to promote or punish companies based on the type of press he’s getting.
Yet here we are. It’s a pattern. And it’s not at all beyond these people to try to burn it all to the ground out of selfishness and spite. And bad ratings.