Google's Best Defense Against Trump's Outbursts? Greater Transparency

President Donald Trump’s attack on Google has received a lot of attention over the past couple of days. But the outburst really is nothing new. It echoes a highly cynical conservative campaign to demonize Google, Twitter and Facebook as stealthy liberal agents seeking to suppress right-leaning views.

It should be no surprise that this campaign—including the president’s most recent allegations—lack a factual basis. The absence of proof, unfortunately, won’t slow President Trump and his followers. What the dominant online companies could do to fight back, though, is lower the wall of secrecy around the algorithms that power their sites.

The president kicked off his latest round of internet frenzy with early-morning Twitter posts on Tuesday. “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media,” he declared. “They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation—will be addressed!” Later in the day, he added the warning that not only Google but also Twitter and Facebook, “have to be careful.”

Google insisted in a statement that its search engine is “not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.”

Neither President Trump nor anyone else on the political right has offered any reliable evidence of Google stifling conservative views. The president’s latest eruption appeared to have been set off by a segment Monday night on Fox Business Network. The segment highlighted an article on a conservative website, PJ Media, which said it had conducted a “not scientific” study that found 96% of Google search results for the word “Trump” were articles from “left-leaning sites.”

Without trying to replicate whatever research PJ Media did, I Googled “Trump” on Wednesday at midday, and the second-ranked story delivered to me came from pro-Trump Fox News. The headline: “Trump rips CNN over debunked Trump Tower story: ‘They got caught red-handed.’”

Facebook is no different. As Shira Ovide at Bloomberg helpfully pointed out, “It’s generally not true that right-leaning voices get an unfair shake on popular internet hangouts.” Citing engagement statistics from the content-research website NewsWhip, Ovide added, “Fox News consistently has among the most widely circulated posts on Facebook.”

President Trump has lashed out at Twitter, too, even as he uses it heavily. On July 26, he accused Twitter of “shadow banning” prominent Republicans. “We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once!” he added. The next day, Casey Newton at The Verge thoroughly debunked this Trump claim. Newton explained that Twitter had merely adjusted its algorithm to require users, in some circumstances, to spell out people’s complete names when searching for their tweets.

No amount of journalistic exposure will insulate the internet platforms from these conservative attacks. This is a purposeful offensive that’s part of a larger effort to polarize the electorate. In February, the Conservative Political Action Conference held a session entitled, “Suppression of Conservative Views on Social Media: A First Amendment Issue.” Republicans on Capitol Hill followed up in April and July with hearings on alleged online liberal bias.

In August, when Facebook, Apple and Google’s YouTube banned Alex Jones, a notorious right-wing conspiracy theorist and Trump backer, some conservatives again cried foul. “It’s not just a slippery slope, it’s a dangerous cliff that social media companies are jumping off to satisfy CNN and other liberal outlets,” Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, told Fox News.

What can the internet companies do in response? Perhaps the most effective step would be to disclose far more than they have about how their algorithms work. The goal would be to show that these computer programs don’t put conservatives at a disadvantage.

What’s already known publicly is that, for example, a Google search will favor web pages that are linked to by lots of other sites and that frequently use words found in the search term. Showing the actual mechanics of how these and other algorithmic features operate would go a long way toward undermining allegations of partiality.

It’s understandable on one level that competitive concerns have caused Google, Facebook and Twitter to keep their versions of Coke’s secret formula under wraps. But given the mounting pressure from the right—and more importantly, the benefit that ordinary users might derive from understanding how these ubiquitous services actually work—it’s time for the internet companies to lift the curtain further on their ingenious software.