For years now, Conservative leaders have lamented a left-leaning bias in national level media. While there’s little debate in recent years as to whether some outlets have begun capitalizing on confirmation bias to solidify themselves among specific political demographics, suppositions of a long-standing “liberal agenda” in mainstream media aren’t without warrant. Of course, it seems less likely that a secretive cabal of Left-leaning conspirators are at the helm, and likely more a result of geography.
The vast majority of nationally distributed media in the United States is produced in one of two places: New York City and Los Angeles. Both of these large cities boast large Democrat voter turnouts and are located in far more liberal regions of the nation as a whole. Because most media content is produced where most people tend to vote Democrat, a bias (either intentional or otherwise) often manifests without the need for any overarching agenda. However, the advent of the internet has created the opportunity for more news outlets to spring up, representing other groups and interests.
Social media, in turn, serves as a powerful tool for message distribution for independent news outlets (such as NEWSREP) as well as powerful mainstream ones like Fox, CNN, and the like. While media conglomerates can afford to place their content on the feeds of more people than smaller sites can, the two appear before individual readers on a somewhat equal footing as they’re scrolled through on Facebook or Twitter, allotting significant power to the algorithms used to place shared content before users (and serving as one of Facebook’s primary revenue streams: charging companies for “reach”). Recently, an increased pressure has been placed on these social media platforms to take on the responsibility of ensuring the news being spread throughout their digital real estate is “real,” prompting debate regarding censorship and America’s apparent willingness to allow corporations to make these determinations for the sake of the “greater good” of the people.
Like the mainstream media, social media has also long been accused of censoring conservative voices, again, likely as a result of social media businesses largely being based in liberal regions of the country and staffed by those with liberal viewpoints. Evidence of such a social media bias has occasionally surfaced, stoking fears among Republicans that their voices are being stifled by the social media platforms they choose to frequent.
President Trump recently accused Twitter of “shadow banning” prominent Republican profiles, ironically through his own Twitter profile. This week, he extended his accusations of biased digital practices to the search giant Google, seemingly citing data culled from a website with a reputation for misrepresenting facts to better suit the site’s overall conservative viewpoint. In the piece Trump seemed to cite, the author lamented how a search for “Trump news” resulted in mostly hits from news agencies like CNN, CBS, CNBC, Reuters and USA Today — noting specifically that his own site, PJMedia, as well as other notable conservative sites, like Breitbart, didn’t appear within the top 100 search results. Of course, objectively, this would seem to indicate that Google prioritized the most heavily trafficked and well-known sites over decidedly smaller and less prominent independent ones — as Reuters undoubtedly sees more global traffic than PJMedia does on a daily basis.
In the minds of the conservative pundit writing the piece, however, it was indicative of a far more sinister conspiracy against those with similar viewpoints to his own, and President Trump, it seems, agrees. He posted to Twitter:
Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!”
That “96%” figure came directly from PJMedia, who claimed only four notable “conservative” websites appeared in the top 100 results for “Trump news.” It’s unclear what President Trump would propose to do in order to address this issue, as Google (under parent company Alphabet) is a publicly traded corporation. Forcing the company to change its algorithms to add more conspicuously conservative viewpoints in the place of well established mainstream outlets would have economic repercussions that could reverberate throughout the media industry. There is currently no legal precedent for forcing a company to change its practices in order to give a certain political ideology a larger platform.
It seems that the JPMedia analysis, and Trump’s own concerns, lack a broader understanding of how the internet, and sites like Google, often work. Search results, while absolutely subject to manipulation, are traditionally skewed toward bringing the user to the most commonly sought after results, rather than those that are most in keeping with their own particular beliefs. In effect, that makes it an averages game: more people that searched specifically “Trump news” were likely looking for the types of stories conservatives don’t support, skewing the results in their favor. It stands to reason that many Trump supporters likely don’t start their day, of course, by Googling “Trump news.”
Google offered this statement in response to the president’s accusations:
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.”