Opinion

TAKALA: Think Google Controls The News? It’s Worse Than You Think, Experts Say

TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Rudy Takala Contributor

As Silicon Valley seeks to enhance its control over the news consumers are able to view in the lead-up to 2020, experts say many publications are actively shaping their coverage to stay in “Big Tech’s” good graces.

Publications that please the companies are rewarded with more exclusive scoops, better technical support and an elevated search-engine ranking, allowing them to reach more readers.

“When is the last time you saw an op-ed in The Washington Post that was deeply critical of Facebook or Google? When is the last time you saw Axios or Politico quote a tech whistleblower in a favorable light?” one industry insider asked.

Dr. Robert Epstein, a research scientist who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and who has spent years studying how Google shapes online behavior, said the issue has affected where he gets interviewed. “Even though I’m not a conservative, I keep getting invited to be on conservative talk shows. Why do I never get invited on mainstream, left-leaning shows?”

Among top tech companies, Google has been especially aggressive in seeking to manipulate what users are able to view on its platform. In the same vein, sources familiar with the company said, Google is especially generous to friendly members of the press.

“I’ve heard of news organizations being nice to Google … so that they’d still get Google’s press releases,” said James Damore, a former Google engineer who was fired after he authored a memo critical of the company’s push for diversity. “Google employees are more likely to read and care about publications that speak well of Google … and are then more likely to find bugs and create features related to those.”

Damore said one example was CNN. “For video search, CNN videos were always given as examples and any bugs related to them were quickly fixed.” (RELATED: How Major News Organizations, Universities And Businesses Surrender Their Privacy To Google)

Kevin Cernekee, a former Google engineer who said he was fired for his conservative beliefs, said he agreed with Damore’s assessment in an Aug. 2 interview on Fox News. “One thing that I’ve noticed is that just handling routine issues is plagued by bias. They’ll get an email from a liberal reporter complaining about something and they will jump on it. They’ll fix the issue very, very quickly.”

That may be why many publications have chosen to ignore the flood of self-styled whistleblowers who have left the company. Former engineers who have joined that community include Mike Wacker, who was fired in June, he says, for his conservative political opinions; and Greg Coppola, who was placed on administrative leave in July after he went public with claims of bias at the company.

Yet, a Google search for Wacker, Coppola and Cernekee suggests none of the three have been ever been referenced by news organizations such as the Washington Post, CNN or Axios. Politico, to its credit, dedicated three sentences to Cernekee, but only after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy weighed in on his situation.

While Axios does have a category dedicated to James Damore, all three stories in that category convey a sense that the site favors Google. “James Damore’s Google lawsuit will continue, despite court’s doubts,” a June headline blared. A February headline assured readers, “Google didn’t violate labor laws by firing engineer over memo.”

Is the site’s scant, negative coverage of Damore a coincidence or part of a broader strategy? Axios co-founder and CEO Mike Allen did not return a request for comment. (DHILLON: Will Google And Apple Answer For Helping Oppress Saudi Women?)

Even if tech companies are causing some newsrooms to take a more flattering approach to tech coverage, Silicon Valley’s advocates say it isn’t a problem.

“Despite some instances of publications refusing to target ‘Big Tech,’ many more benefit significantly from attacking these platforms because of the popular anxiety about them,” said Jeff Westling, a technology fellow at the nonprofit R Street Institute in Washington, D.C.

“We have seen numerous stories critical of big tech for their content moderation decisions and potential conservative bias,” Westling said, pointing to instances where the New York Times and Washington Post published stories that argued Facebook, Twitter and Google’s subsidiary YouTube didn’t do enough to control online speech, and that Facebook treated its employees poorly.

Of course, it isn’t surprising that big publications would like to see tech companies do more to regulate speech considering those publications often benefit from such crackdowns. When Facebook tweaked its algorithm in early 2018 to de-emphasize smaller websites it deemed less credible, one analysis suggested conservative publishers lost, on average, 14 percent of their traffic from Facebook, while liberal publishers gained an average of 2 percent.

At least one site — the libertarian-oriented Rare — shut down after the change. The conservative Independent Journal Review laid off much of its staff and changed its structure to become a nonprofit organization. The Washington Post’s Facebook traffic increased by nearly 5 percent, while the New York Times gained 3 percent.

Which publications are Google employees most likely to favor? In an interview, Wacker, the former Google engineer, said, “I’d add in Vox … beyond more mainstream sources, tech publications such as TechCrunch, Gizmodo and Wired are fairly popular. The Intercept is worth mentioning … Pink News is worth calling out, as they have a lot of influence in the tech industry.” (RELATED: Google Employees Debated Burying Conservative Media In Search Results)

If Google employees look at anything other than “approved” news outlets — or if they even fix a bug for a conservative-leaning outlet — it can cause problems in the workplace, according to a source who worked for Google who wished to remain anonymous.

“Google has a bottom-up culture where engineers have a lot of discretion to set their own priorities. So if a bug is causing trouble for the New York Times — or the Huffington Post, or whatever — they’re more likely to correct it as soon as possible,” the source said. “They’ll win accolades from their liberal peers, maybe even earn a ‘peer bonus’ for it. If a bug is causing trouble for The Daily Caller, they’ll reluctantly fix it — maybe, someday — but there’s social pressure not to be seen as a ‘champion’ of anything remotely conservative, and no one will be overly motivated to do it.”

The source added, “Conservative employees would file bugs that ‘leaked’ their political affiliation, and then have second thoughts and delete it to cover their tracks. There is always a risk that anything you write on the Google intranet could go viral and result in a lynch mob. When that happens, management never has your back.”

The dynamic is one that federal antitrust investigators could take into account. The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission both initiated antitrust probes of Google and Facebook  over the summer.

Westling suggested the companies have latitude to set their own policies under antitrust law, but that they have an incentive to behave even without a mandate. “Even if existing law doesn’t prohibit such a practice, verifiable retaliatory action would likely spur congressional action on the subject, which the platforms are desperately trying to avoid.”

Google did not return a request for comment.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.