Are Faulty Algorithms, Not Liberal Bias, To Blame For Google’s Fact-Checking Mess?

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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Google, one of the world’s primary sources for information, and its new fact-check widget were recently criticized by all ends of the political spectrum, after an investigation by The Daily Caller News Foundation found that the feature is faulty, yielding several partial or outright spurious results for The Daily Caller.

Some of those criticisms, such as those from the Poynter Institute, have been laced with defensiveness for the tech giant, specifically arguing that the algorithms used for the feature are to blame, not bias from Google. Poynter receives funding from Google. Poynter also notably leads the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), the same third-party fact-checking cohort that helped populate several erroneous Google fact-checks to TheDC’s brand.

Poynter’s Daniel Funke concedes The Daily Caller’s “request for transparency on how decisions are made about which media organizations receive the treatment” is valid, but contends that it wasn’t bias that led Google’s fact-check feature to primarily attach (inaccurate) results to center-right outlets like TheDC and The Federalist, while leaving left-leaning sites like Slate, Vox, or The Huffington Post unscathed. Funke lays blame at the feet of a much less accountable culprit: “Bugs.”

But what about the creators of the algorithms? At whose behest did they build this algorithm, and what were their motivations?

After all, Google conducted lengthy communications with TheDCNF and refused throughout to provide details of how its algorithms work, citing company policy.

“Google is not just a company, it’s the owner of the world’s biggest conduit to information, with a 69 percent global search market share,” Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote in an op-ed titled “If Google Is Biased, So Are Its Algorithms.”

“It leads people to it by using proprietary algorithms and artificial intelligence. And it’s acutely aware of the problem of algorithm bias,” he continued, while directly referencing a Google-produced video on the subject.

Poynter dismisses concerns of Google’s bias even with the company’s secrecy, saying that the firm, somewhat vaguely, explained to them that the fact-check feature, “is derived from the ratio of fact checks to what is covered on a specific news site.”

“Per that explanation, it’s plausible that the algorithm picked up The Post’s fact check because The Daily Caller has repeatedly written about the political affiliation of Mueller’s team, as well as the fact that other fact-checkers had covered the same story,” Funke wrote.

The DC articles Poynter hyperlinked were all straight news or investigative reporting, and were objectively newsworthy and fairly covered by even the strictest journalistic measure. “Other fact-checkers” refers to a Politifact article on the Mueller claim, that itself contains links to CNN’s, Politico’s and Fox News’s coverage of Mueller’s team and donations to Democrats. None of these brands received a flawed rating from Google. Poynter omits these discrepancies in their defense of Google.

Poynter also omits that several other Google fact-checks contained the same or similar error as the Mueller fact-check.

Poynter proposes the frequency with which an outlet covers a story directly affects the fact-check. If that’s true, then it’s hard to imagine why Google engineers would include that aspect, since media bias is not always about how a story is written, but what stories an outlet chooses to write about.

TheDC wrote multiple pieces on an evolving story because it tries to balance out the mostly liberal media industry, which in general avoided reporting the aforementioned story.

When TheDCNF asked if a ratio such as this is a good component of an algorithm with that purpose, Alexios Mantzarlis, the leader of the IFCN, simply said “no.”

Funke, however, said that while “I am not here to comment on algorithms,” he thinks that “a substantive critique and maybe analysis of Google’s algorithms would be really helpful, especially for transparency standards,” and that such an input to the equation “would be good to have.”

A writer for Gizmodo also wrote that Google told him “the reason The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and the other outlets that The Daily Caller cites don’t have the reviewed claims widget is because the algorithm decides based on the ratio of fact checks from the IFCN to the amount of content the publication produces.”

He cites a statistic showing the “ publishes roughly 150 articles a day (Monday-Saturday), 250 articles on Sunday and 65 blog posts per day.”

“Additionally, it produces hundreds of graphs and interactive items per month,” he continued. “The Daily Caller publishes a fraction of that, so its fact-checking ratio likely triggered the widget.”

TheDC, according to its editor in chief Geoffrey Ingersoll, has a “resting heart rate at about 170-180 posts a day,” so, aside from being wrong, the Gizmodo writer’s reporting doesn’t apply to the Caller.

Robert Epstein, cofounder of a behavioral research institute in California and former editor in chief of Psychology Today, conducted experiments to see if searching through Google, Bing, and Yahoo produced biased results, and if the biased results affected voters’ perceptions before the election.

“So far we have found that between May and November 2016, search results displayed in response to a wide range of election-related search terms were, on average, biased in Mrs. Clinton’s favor in all 10 search-result positions,” reads a report of the study, co-authored by Ronald E. Robertson of Northeastern University. “We don’t know what caused these patterns of bias, but no matter what the cause or causes, given the power of search rankings to shift votes and opinions without people’s awareness, they are a matter for concern.”

That’s especially true for many when considering the finding: “Without the pro-Clinton bias in Google’s search results, her win margin in the popular vote might have been negligible.”

Tom Struble, manager and policy counsel for the tech shop at the R Street Institute, says it’s possible for algorithms to be biased even if their creators were not. Struble personally doesn’t think Google, as a company overall, is politically slanted. (R Street receives funding from Google in some capacity.)

“However, the employees who work for Google surely do have some biases, based on their own subjective experiences and preferences,” Struble said. “And it’s possible that certain Google employees are biased against conservative media outlets, and may have intentionally or subconsciously imposed that bias onto Google products or services in some way, but I don’t know of any evidence for that.”

He says it’s more likely that “garbage inputs,” or users entering searches with bogus claims, create “garbage outputs,” meaning the algorithm is likely showing bias because of what users were typing.

Struble provides an example:

In the context of algorithms that power web search (Google, Bing, etc.), the algorithms themselves aren’t racist (as far as I know), but if a user is racist and enters a bunch of racial slurs into the search field, the search results will probably link to a bunch of awful racist websites. So, the algorithm is showing bias there, but it’s working properly and showed bias only because that’s what the user was inputting.

Nevertheless, Poynter makes even more attempts to defend its benefactor.

The DCNF investigative article “refers to ‘Google’s fact-checking,’ but the tech company actually draws upon work conducted by independent, nonpartisan fact-checking organizations contributing to the ClaimReview markup,” Funke wrote.

The contention that Snopes, one of the third-party organizations, is non-partisan is highly dubious. One of the main political fact-checkers for Snopes is a writer who admitted to being “openly left-leaning.” In fact, an investigation by TheDC actually found that Snopes almost exclusively employs overt leftists, or at least did when the article was published. (RELATED: Snopes Caught Deliberately Omitting Key Details To Protect Kerry’s State Department)

Google tried to pin the blame on these organizations, including the influential Washington Post, which was perplexed after hearing that one of their fact-check articles was falsely attached to TheDC’s article on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. Not pleased to hear that they were misrepresented, Kristine Coratti, vice president of communications at WaPo, told TheDCNF, “we clearly labeled the source, so I cannot speak to how The Daily Caller ended up being erroneously listed as the source of the fact-checked quote in this case.”

Coratti said they are making their own inquiries into the matter and Google’s sloppily concocted project, wondering how the algorithms — if that’s indeed the culprit — could mess up so badly.

Poynter also cherrypicks information from TheDCNF’s story by claiming “a false equivalency” in a comparison between TheDC and traditional news outlets like WaPo and TheNYT, who were given an “Awards section” rather than a fact-check column. More importantly, TheDCNF argued in its piece that sites like Vox and The Huffington Post and several others left-leaning or very liberal should be given the same treatment as TheDC. Inexplicably, Funke dismisses TheDC as among “hyperpartisan publications,” while refusing to apply the same moniker to The Huffington post, Mother Jones, Slate, Vox, Gizmodo, and others of that ilk. He goes on to assert that since far-right blog InfoWars doesn’t have a “Reviewed Claims” column, it can’t be a bias, and there must be some ambiguous bug in the algorithm.

Poynter’s “in no way comprehensive” list of “sites with reviewed claims” lumps a bunch of conservative sites with what appears to be a number of obviously disreputable sites of all political affiliations that constantly peddle blatantly fake news — it’s own apparent false equivalency and a rather transparent attempt at guilt by association.

Overall, Funke argues that the public, more aptly conservatives and independents distrustful of big tech corporations, should “lay off the plug-and-chug critiques of Silicon Valley’s partisanship and engage in more meaningful discussions about what Google is — or isn’t — doing to address false or misleading claims in search.”

But how can the public have more “meaningful discussions” about what Google is — or isn’t doing — when the company won’t talk about its algorithms even in minor detail, and actually casts the blame elsewhere?

If Google really cares about bringing the facts to light, it should look inward.

“Google’s fact-checking program is a terrible idea,” Peter Flaherty, president of the right-leaning nonprofit The National Legal and Policy Center, told TheDCNF. “It cannot be fixed. The problem is with the culture. Google has to fix the culture by hiring a greater diversity of people, especially conservatives and libertarians.”

For it’s part, Poynter, which feeds Google’s fact-check feature, could make more of an effort to balance its network. Of the 44 members, specifically the handful that are based in America, only one, The Weekly Standard, is conservative.

(Full disclosure: TheDC has been trying to gain official accreditation for its fact-checking group “Check Your Fact” with Poynter since October.)

Google ultimately suspended the fact-check project, crediting TheDCNF investigation with the decision.

“We launched the reviewed claims feature at the end of last year as an experiment with the aim of helping people quickly learn more about news publications,” a spokeswoman for Google told TheDCNF, while also adding that the nonprofit was the catalyst for the recent move. “We said previously that we encountered challenges in our systems that maps fact checks to publishers, and on further examination it’s clear that we are unable to deliver the quality we’d like for users.”

Google engineers are now going back to the drawing boards to see if and how they can improve the fact-check system. But its far from clear if the problems can be remedied, especially if transparency is not an option.

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