Conservatives are using a pair of stories about Google search results to pile onto their claims that the tech company is intrinsically biased against conservatives. This claim is farcical nonsense, and it fits perfectly into a right-wing pattern of playing technology companies for fools with misleading or completely false accusations.
On May 31, Vice reported that Google search results for the California Republican Party listed “Nazism” as the party’s ideology in the knowledge panel, a section on the right side of the search page that quickly summarizes basic information on search queries. Then, on June 1, Vice also reported that the knowledge panel for North Carolina State Sen. Trudy Wade, a Republican, featured an image of her with “BIGOT” written at the bottom in red letters. Google has corrected both of these issues with its knowledge panels, which are automatically populated with information from a number of sources, some of which, like Wikipedia, anybody can edit any time.
Right-wing media predictably cry that Google has an anti-conservative bias
Conservative media are using these stories to smear Google as a left-wing operative determined to take down Republicans. Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade repurposed an argument from the Hoover Institute’s Niall Ferguson to suggest that Silicon Valley was upset at the Trump campaign’s prolific use of social media during the 2016 election and was trying to tilt the midterm elections for the Democrats. Fox’s Stuart Varney lied about the Trudy Wade image, falsely claiming that “a Google staffer put a ‘bigot’ sign” on Wade’s photo. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said the California Republican Party search result showed that “evidence is mounting that conservative voices are either being suppressed” or “being falsely depicted as hateful extremists” on Google. And Breitbart News scandalized Wikipedia’s relationship with the knowledge panel, claiming that Wikipedia allegedly has a pro-CNN bias.
Members of Congress even got involved in the reactionary pile-on. House intelligence committee chairman and all-around embarrassment Devin Nunes (R-CA) told Fox Business that “we [would] have to move obviously to hearings on these issues” if Google continued to “get involved in politics” and “censor conservatives and Republicans.” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) suggested to MSNBC’s Hugh Hewitt that Google lied when it blamed the “Nazism” search result on Wikipedia, because he had “looked at Wikipedia” earlier “and it didn’t say ‘Nazism’” anywhere.
The right wing’s claims of bias are dishonest bullshit
As Google explained at the time, Nazism appeared in the California Republican Party knowledge panel because Google pulled the information from the party’s Wikipedia page, which had been “vandalized,” meaning it was deliberately incorrectly updated. Wired magazine reported that Wikipedia edit logs confirm that a user falsely edited the page to show “Nazism” as a core belief for the state party and that the note went undetected on the site for a week. It appeared on the Google knowledge panel because the search engine automatically “scrapes” Wikipedia to populate the feature. The edit logs might explain why McCarthy didn’t see “Nazism” on the page when he looked: The story broke on May 31 and he tweeted about it the same day, but Wikipedia had removed the “Nazism” claim from the California Republican Party page the day before.
Similarly, with Trudy Wade, Google removed the “bigot” image from her knowledge panel as soon as the issue was brought to its attention, but the search engine told her that she needed to ask the owner of the image to “take down or update the content” in order to completely remove it from search results. Wade complained during an appearance on the Sunday, June 3, edition of Fox & Friends Weekend that the image was still up, Matt Comer -- a North Carolina LGBTQ activist who first posted the image -- tweeted that Wade never contacted him, suggesting she is more interested in media hits than in actually getting the image removed.
Furthermore, Paul Blest at Splinter News followed the money and found -- shockingly! -- that Google actually likes Republicans, especially Rep. McCarthy. For the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, political donations to Google’s PAC were split roughly evenly between Republicans and Democrats; in fact, Republicans got a bit more in 2016 than Democrats did. Additionally, McCarthy was one of the Google PAC’s “biggest recipients” in 2016 and got $10,000 in 2016 and another $5,000 in 2018 so far.
Dishonest bullshit is the right wing’s trade, and business is booming
As Media Matters has documented for over a decade, right-wing media outlets are expert traders in bullshit, and that trend has not slowed in the age of social media. Most recently, this trend has manifested itself with pro-Trump websites claiming the algorithmic changes at Facebook are censoring their content -- a charge pro-Trump social media figures Lynette “Diamond” Hardaway and Rochelle “Silk” Richardson are leading, while occasionally betraying their profound ignorance.
However, users across the political spectrum have seen their Facebook page views decline since the platform rolled out new rules against fake news and hate speech. In Diamond and Silk’s specific case, the drop in their video views was not even as significant as that of the left-leaning MSNBC prime-time program The Rachel Maddow Show, which “has a much larger [Facebook] page and is the most popular cable news program in the country.”
None of these facts have remotely slowed down Diamond and Silk’s quest to gain attention for their invented grievance. They push their deceit on Fox News and the network actively helps them spread lies about so-called “censorship.” They even brought their perjurious carnival show to the U.S. Congress. Republicans repeatedly asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about this alleged “censorship,” and the focus on the two vloggers took time and attention away from more serious issues Zuckerberg perhaps should have discussed with elected leaders.
Compounding this problem is Google’s reliance on unaccountable third parties for its knowledge panels and search results, including, when it comes to Wikipedia, volunteer labor. While most Wikipedia users likely engage with the site in good faith, vandalism clearly remains a problem and those problems can sometimes trickle out into the larger world. Among conservative circles, there have been and continue to be active movements around astroturfing -- or falsifying the origins of -- online debate. In 2014, BuzzFeed News uncovered “Operation Lollipop,” an organized effort by users of far-right image boards and men’s rights websites to impersonate feminists and start fights among real activists. Then, on June 4, BuzzFeed News also reported on a far-reaching effort from similar extremist websites to flood comment sections on Disqus with hate speech in order to dominate the conversation and recruit new bigots. There is too much bad faith online for Google to be so reliant on the honor system.
The simple truth about right-wing media and alleged censorship on social media is that fake news, conspiracy theories, and online harassment are all more prevalent in conservative circles than in others. So if conservative media spaces are feeling the impact of policy changes meant to combat such misinformation more harshly than others (if they are indeed feeling such an impact), then perhaps it’s right-wing audiences and content creators who are abusing the platforms, not the other way around.