Never let it be said that Donald Trump’s presidency isn’t able to whip up some fresh drama at the drop of a hat. You probably already know that the President is now claiming that Alphabet’s (NASDAQ:GOOG, NASDAQ:GOOGL) search engine is biased against the commander-in-chief. That is, the Google search results for terms like ‘Donald Trump news’ prominently feature the so-called “fake news” sites that tend to paint a less-than-flattering picture of the President.
Is there any semblance of truth to the claim? The short and simple answer is: No. In fact, Alphabet debunked the core of Donald Trump’s claim, which was that Google hasn”t promoted the President’s speeches. The company even provided an archived screenshot of its main search engine page for the day in question. The page clearly contained a link to the speech.
Responsible journalism, however, and for that matter, responsible citizenship, require that we take a closer look at the matter.
How Google Search Results Work
President Trump’s complaint is understandable, but mostly off-base.
Google search results aren’t designed to highlight news that cast a shadow on Donald Trump and ignore his successes. Google search results are simply a reflection and sampling of all the news content available via the internet. Most of the results come from the same news sources (CNN, CNBC, Washington Post, New York Times, etc) that Trump spars with because those sources collectively upload more news to the web than other news outlets.
Google search results are ultimately driven by an algorithm — a complex set of rules, standards and statistics that rank every web page in the world in an effort to deliver what Google thinks an individual is looking for when he or she uses its engine to search the web. Nobody knows what the algorithm is, but the company applies the algorithm uniformly to each and every website.
Couldn’t Alphabet alter or tweak that algorithm to serve a particular political agenda? Sure, but why would it? Google makes money by being a reliable, useful search engine, and conservative Republicans click on advertisements, too.
The same goes for Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Twitter (NASDAQ:TWTR). President Trump lodged complaints against both of those social media websites earlier this week. It’s simply too difficult and not advantageous enough to “program” a political bias into either platform.
And yet, there may well be a legitimate complaint on behalf of the President that’s less about Google itself and more about the news sites its search engine scours.
The Web Isn’t Television
Let’s be intellectually honest for a few moments and acknowledge that most media outlets are generally left-leaning. And, simultaneously, let’s recognize that personal political opinions have subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) seeped into how — and which — news stories are written or produced. Just for the record though, it’s not as if right-leaning news outlets don’t do the same things.
Don’t misinterpret that message. If you own the newspaper, website or television channel, you can deliver whatever news you want. You can also express whatever opinion you want, provided it’s made clear that an opinion or commentary is just that… an opinion. Actual “fake news” is a rarity, and never comes from credible sources.
However, the web can still paint a picture that the President doesn’t care for.
That’s starkly different from television coverage of the presidency, which the President has arguably “won.” Fox News may be the only pro-Trump television channel available, but it handily outperforms liberal-minded rivals like the aforementioned CNN and MSNBC in terms of viewership. Indeed, last quarter’s ratings indicate that Fox News almost outperformed CNN and MSNBC combined, suggesting that most television watchers are absorbing pro-Trump content.
Google search results don’t quite work the same way, though. Aside from the fact that the internet has a slightly different audience, quantity means more than quality when it comes to the web. It just so happens that most journalists are indeed liberals and/or Democrats. Intentional or not, even modest bias seeping into their work posted on the web could look and feel like a coordinated online effort to work against the President.
This may be the actual complaint that President Trump is trying to voice — a lack of conservative journalists and conservative angles that lets liberal voices largely dominate the internet, and an internet that doesn’t necessarily consider viewership tallies when choosing what it features.
Bottom Line on Google Search Results And Trump
That’s not to say that some in the media haven’t at times ganged up on Donald Trump. They have.
No actual “fake news” has been fabricated by legitimate journalists, but the line between journalism and opinion has been blurred… repeatedly and aggressively. Fact-gathering has been replaced by innuendo, stopping just short of conveying messages that might be less than truthful. Much of the media has helped shape a narrative not with “fake news,” but by selectively featuring some news and back-paging other developments that might cast a positive light on the President.
But that’s not Google’s fault. Google search results are just the messenger. Google search results are not the message.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.