As tech companies have continued their efforts to combat the epidemic of fake news and misinformation, several conservative media outlets are denouncing Google for alleged bias.
At issue is a feature the search giant recently unveiled for people using Apple’s Safari or Google’s Chrome browsers that provides additional information when users search for certain publications. A tab labeled “Reviewed Claims” provides a listing of recent headlines from the site that have purportedly been disputed by fact-checking organizations. (The "Reviewed Claims" box does not appear to users of Internet Explorer, Firefox and other browsers that do not utilize the WebKit HTML engine.)
This new feature appears to be related to a partnership Google announced in October with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), an organization that strives to promote neutral accuracy analysis for claims made by media outlets and political figures. At that time, the company announced a new effort to provide instant feedback for searchers onclaims that have been disputed.
As with any other algorithmic attempt to combat fake news, however, Google’s Reviewed Claims feature is subject to what technology veterans have termed “artificial stupidity.” That refers to the process whereby data analysis software introduces errors while trying to understand things that are far more complicated than winning at chess.
According to the conservative Daily Caller, however, what the search engine is really doing is trying to foist a left-wing political agenda on its users.
Recently the site published a piece by technology writer Eric Lieberman entitled “Google’s fact-checking is liberal bias,” which alleged that conservative sites were being unfairly flagged for debunking by the Mountain View, Calif.-based mobile and search behemoth.
Keying off the fact that Google employees have disproportionately donated to Democrats over the years, Lieberman implied that the company is trying to propagandize web searchers through “highly partisan” results that alert readers to disputed claims made by some conservative sites (including the Daily Caller) while not warning them about left-leaning sites which he seems to think are not credible.
“A review of mainstream outlets, as well as other outlets associated with liberal and conservative audiences, shows that only conservative sites feature the highly misleading, subjective analysis. Several conservative-leaning outlets like TheDC are ‘vetted,’ while equally partisan sites like Vox, ThinkProgress, Slate, The Huffington Post, Daily Kos, Salon, Vice and Mother Jones are spared,” he wrote.
Lieberman’s analysis has been widely picked up by various right-wing publications (and by Fox News) which have used it as further proof for the long-standing conservative gripe that America’s elites are biased against them.
The longer-term argument on this subject may have some merit: Journalists have long been much more likely to be secular, urban and Democratic than the average American. But Lieberman’s particular analysis is incomplete and factually wrong.
The most glaring flaw in Lieberman’s attack on Google is that the company has deliberately abdicated employee involvement in determining what sorts of articles show up on search results. In fact, Google explicitly allows any website to designate particular articles as fact-check pieces by utilizing certain XML code in its pages.
While the submitted articles are not guaranteed to show up in results, Google’s stated policy errs on the side of openness toward outlets that wish to engage in fact-checking. The only way such a website can be removed from consideration is if it's deemed in violation of Google’s publicly accessible guidelines, which include clear writing, citation of primary sources and transparency regarding methodology and sourcing. Humans are never involved in this process unless Google receives a complaint that a site has been violating its rules for fact-checkers.
Additionally, membership in the IFCN is open to any publication willing to agree to follow the organization’s rules and submit to a public vetting process, irrespective of political orientation or ideology.
“Our policy is to accept all organizations that meet the terms of our code,” the group said in a December press release announcing that it had accepted a membership application from the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. “The verification applies exclusively to the fact-checking unit or project being assessed — not to any journalism work conducted by a parent organization.”
That the Standard’s articles are now showing up in Google fact-checking results illustrates another point against Lieberman’s conclusions: There are many conservative media organizations whose Google results do not feature Reviewed Claims. Beyond the Standard, searches for the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times, the American Spectator, Fox News Channel, the Washington Free Beacon, National Review, the Daily Signal and Townhall.com did not return fact-checking flags in results.
There is a good reason for this: Those publications do not regularly engage in fabricating news or running stories that are poorly sourced and ultimately prove to be false. While liberal readers are certain to find analysis and reporting that they strongly disagree with or believe to be incorrect on those sites, their journalism standards (with the possible exception of Fox News) are significantly more professional than those of the partisan sensationalists at Breitbart or the fake-news writers at Conservative Tribune.
The same thing is true of the left-leaning websites Lieberman argues should be flagged by Google. All of them, except the community forum Daily Kos, feature articles which are subject to editorial review, written and published by people with professional journalism experience or training.
Though Lieberman and his colleagues may not like it, it’s not exactly a surprise that Google users looking up the Daily Caller would be automatically referred to debunking articles.
While the site has has hired some quality journalists over the years, it has also employed dubious characters with ties to white nationalism, and hasn't necessarily dumped them after they were exposed as such. In fact, Lieberman’s article is accompanied by a video anchored by Martina Markota, a former stripper and burlesque dancer who has many associations with the racist “alt-right” movement. The site was also once the platform of Chuck C. Johnson, now a white nationalist who published several blatantly inaccurate stories on the site, including a 2014 article accusing a New York Times reporter of having been arrested for exhibitionism, based on a parody article.
“If TheDC is guilty of a sin, it is the sin of being willing to let all sorts of eccentric people write for them,” Daily Beast blogger Matt Lewis wrote about his former employer in an essay that discussed the Caller’s mixed identity and willingness to accept content from pretty much anyone.
It’s also no surprise that Breitbart News, the former home of Steve Bannon — which has also promoted blatant racism and false conspiracy theories — would be flagged by Google’s fact-checking partners.
Several conservative commentators who work at outlets not called out by Google’s fact-checking partners don't seem to have bothered to figure out why their own employers did not provoke such attention.
“Big Corps=Big Control,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham wrote on Tuesday, referencing a new argument that populist conservatives have borrowed from the left -- the idea that large technology companies are a bigger threat to freedom than the federal government.
“An important story from the Daily Caller: Google’s new fact-check tool appears to target conservative websites, and ... well, basically no one else,” Washington Free Beacon writer Alex Griswold observed on Twitter. He did not respond when I asked him why he thought more legitimate conservative sites were not flagged.
“We have fallen into the trap of fact-checking. Fact-checking is just as subjective as any other kind of journalism,” Fox News commentator Chris Stirewalt observed this week during the network’s “Outnumbered” show. He then launched into a tirade against the idea of fact-checking, which is odd considering that his employer has published literally hundreds of stories claiming to do that very thing.
In the end, Lieberman’s claim that Google is choosing to skew results leftward — which has echoed throughout the entire right-wing media world — is simply false. Google’s fact-checking system is open to anyone who wishes to follow its rules. Conservatives simply seem uninterested in participating.
(Google’s system for finding fact-check articles related to a user’s search query remains far from perfect, however. Lieberman’s article cites two valid examples of “artificial stupidity,” including an allegation that the Daily Caller had incorrectly claimed that Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller was only hiring Democrats. In fact, the article to which Google linked made no such claim. In a statement to Salon, a Google representative acknowledged that the company’s software was still a work in progress, saying, “We have seen a few instances where our system for associating claims with articles has some issues that will be addressed.”)
Additionally, people of the right who distrust major fact-checking websites such as Snopes or FactCheck.org could presumably go start their own. But with the exception of the Weekly Standard, conservatives have not chosen to create fact-checking operations or even to found media outlets that aim to serve people of all political persuasions. Overwhelmingly, American media properties founded on the right are a closed universe, designed for conservatives by conservatives.
Beyond why conservative elites appear to be less interested in funding fact-checking or mainstream journalism, it is worth noting that empirical research keeps indicating that fake news is a much greater problem for the American right than for the left. A 2016 UCLA study found that socially conservative people were more likely to believe false information that emphasized health threats. Research published by Yale University in September found that Trump supporters were more likely to believe a story if it had been marked as “fake.” A massive study published last August by Harvard found that websites that regularly featured false stories were more popular among conservatives on Facebook during the 2016 general election than Fox News. Also in August, a PCWorld experiment found that a test-case liberal Facebook user was not exposed to any fabricated news stories during a two-and-a-half day period whereas a test-case conservative user was shown 10 different phony stories.
The profusion of websites willing to make up or exaggerate the news in order to reach an audience is killing conservative media, according to a top writer at a very popular center-right website.
“I hate blogging now. I have no desire to do it now. They ruined it for everybody,” this writer, who did not want to be identified, told Salon. “These fake news assholes have made it basically impossible to earn a living as an honest conservative who isn’t a Fox News host or contributor.”
The blogger continued: “If you tell them some crap story is not true, you get blasted and hated on by your readers. I literally have not checked my site email in six months.”
“Of course that’s a true story,” John Ziegler, a former conservative talk radio show host who is now a columnist at Mediaite, told Salon when he was relayed the quote above. “When you’re willing to lie you can easily get tons of traffic. It’s no different from how fictional movies greatly outsell documentaries.”
Ziegler said he felt uncomfortable with giving tech companies like Google the power to tell people what was true or false, but added he wasn't sure that his preferred method — each side polices its own — was workable.
“I try to call out fellow conservatives all the time but it’s terrible for your business model, I can tell you that,” he said. “Politics has become a popularity contest where traffic to your site or sales for your book are dependent on people retweeting you and promoting your stuff. If you call them liars, you’re screwed.”
Ziegler’s response reminded me of a conversation I had with Jim Hoft, the creator of the sensationalist and frequently mendacious Gateway Pundit blog. Our chat took place in early 2015, shortly before Hoft would strike pay dirt by churning out false stories aimed at fans of future candidate Donald Trump. His site was one of three that Harvard’s researchers said was more popular on Facebook in 2016 than Fox News.
“Why don’t you try to vet your stories better?” I asked him, aware of several pieces he had been forced to retract or correct.
“People just want to have a little fun. Why not let them?” Hoft said with a wink as he turned and left.