Two days after the 2016 election, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, lamented how the “rise of misinformation and the ability to flood with digital information really can produce bad outcomes.” He continued, “How people get their information, what they believe, what they don’t, is, I think, the project for the next decade.” Given the timing of the remarks, Schmidt’s position as a top advisor to the Clinton campaign, and the fact that Google employees and executives contributed to Clinton over Trump by an 80 to 1 ratio, it’s fair to assume that the election results were one of the “bad outcomes” to which he was referring.
After the election, Google partnered with The Poynter Institute for Media Studies to help it fix its supposed problem with fake news. (Poynter’s many donors include George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and the left wing anti-Trump billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who contributed $100 million to combat the perceived problem.)
It’s important to keep this background in mind as Google changes its search algorithms to fight “fake news.” In January, the tech titan instituted a “reviewed claim” section in a box that appeared alongside a Google search of certain news sites. However, as the Daily Caller reported, these fact checks appeared almost exclusively appeared for conservative websites like The Daily Caller, Breitbart, and the Federalist, but not for liberal sites like Vox or ThinkProgress. Furthermore, these “reviewed claims” often did not correspond to the content of the articles. In response to the outcry over its biased and unfactual “fact-checking,” Google suspended its “reviewed claims” section. However, it continues to alter its results to please the fact checkers.
Last week, the search giant reformed its “Google Snippets” feature to try to root out inaccurate information. “Snippets” are excerpts of text from a website that appear in a box above the other search results, often when you ask for a recipe or a question. For example, if you Google “how to make a martini,” the text of recipe and a link from the snipped website will appear above the search results. Yet Snippets is not perfect. In early 2017, if you asked “Is Obama planning a coup?”, Google would snippet an article from “Secrets of the Fed” with the answer, “Obama may in fact be planning a communist coup d’etat at the end of his term in 2016!”
While few people would agree with this “answer,” Google Snippets’ false information is not limited to right-wing conspiracy theories. For example, at one point, when you Googled “Presidents in the KKK,” Google would excerpt “answers” that falsely stated that four U.S. presidents were in the Klan. While Google should address this problem, it is merely a facet of the obvious fact that internet research is not perfect. By portraying it as one rooted in politicized fake news, the “solutions” become intertwined with Google’s own political biases.
This situation would not be so harmful if Google did not have so much power over the distribution of information. But Google controls over 91 percent of the search engine market. It no longer just lists websites, but also posts additional information about the search query, often in a box either above or to the right of the search results. Google placed the “reviewed claims” in the “One Box,” which included excerpts from the news sites’ Wikipedia page and topics they frequently cover.
If you search for a local restaurant, you’ll get a “Google+ Box” which include photos of the restaurant. If you search for the lyrics to the song, a box will show up with the first half of the lyrics. If you search for a hotels or flights, then Google Travel and Google Flights will appear above the results taking you directly to the booking page for the hotels and airlines.
This plethora of information can be convenient by saving the time of having to click through to a new page to get the information you want. However, it allows Google prioritize its products over competitors like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Expedia, Priceline, or Rap Genius. Even if these companies offer better products and services, they are at a competitive disadvantage when Google uses its search monopoly to prefer its own products.
As evinced by its bogus “fact check,” the danger of Google manipulating its search results for political purposes is very real. During the campaign, President Trump tweeted, “Wow, Twitter, Google and Facebook are burying the FBI criminal investigation of Clinton. Very dishonest media!” Of course, the professional “fact checkers” immediately claimed this was false. However, a study by Robert Epstein of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology found that Google’s search results were so biased in favor of Clinton, it could have swayed two million votes towards her.
It appears that Google is using its same monopolistic tactics to exclude its ideological competitors, just as it has done with its economic competitors. The potential that a company with a monopoly over the flow of information would use its market power for purposes of thought control—to, in Schmidt’s words, change what people believe—is a prospect that should alarm liberals and conservatives alike. Cracking down on Google’s anti-competitive practices is thus essential to our democracy as well as our economic freedom.
Noah Peters is an attorney in Washington, D.C.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.