In the midst of the “fake news” hysteria last year, Google launched a project to help curate reliable information for its readers by identifying articles and sites that need fact-checking. And this may come as a surprise to some of you, but it looks like the tech giant’s truth project is imbued with a tiny bit of ideological and political bias.
Eric Lieberman at The Daily Caller recently found that the fact checks displayed in Google’s search engine results are targeted almost exclusively at conservative publications. You can test it out yourself.
Now, you may believe that conservatives are hopeless liars in need of relentless correcting, so I’ll concede the point for argument’s sake. Even then, you’d have to admit it’s a small miracle that, according to Google’s search engine, not a single prominent liberal or mainstream site in the entire universe has ever uttered a dubious or questionable claim.
Luckily for us, there are methods available to analyze the veracity of Google’s project. One way, for example, is to take a “reviewed claim” made against The Federalist, the site I happen to know best, and contrast it to the coverage of other sites.
Consider the case of a woman named Eileen Wellstone. Out of many thousands of pieces published by The Federalist over the past four years, a single one mentions the name Eileen Wellstone. That article, detailing the sordid history of Bill Clinton, mentions her name exactly once: “Another woman, Eileen Wellstone, claimed Clinton raped her while he was at Oxford University in the late 1960s.”
For some reason, in this “reviewed claim” against The Federalist, Google sends the reader to a Snopes fact-check that argues that Clinton wasn’t expelled from Oxford over this alleged rape — a point I concede sounds completely accurate and is also an assertion that no one has ever made in this publication.
So the question is, does Google tag every article that relays accusations of sexual misconduct or rape as “unproven,” or just the ones against Bill Clinton? Or is the mention of Wellstone specifically worthy of a claim? The Wellstone case has not only been cited in all types of publications (and not in efforts to debunk it, either; 1,2,3,4,5, and so on) but by The Washington Post’s own fact-checker.
In a 2016 article detailing allegations against Bill Clinton that might be brought up by then-candidate Donald Trump, WaPo notes, “Eileen Wellstone says she was assaulted by Clinton when he was a student at Oxford University in 1969.” There is virtually no difference between that statement and the one published in The Federalist. Not that Google search engines users would know this when they search for the influential newspaper.
Or take another purported fact-check regarding climate change, which creates the impression that there’s something inaccurate about a specific arguable claim because the larger notions about the topic happen to be true.
What’s most amusing about this fact-check is that Google sends people who searched for “The Federalist” to an article correcting a claim made by someone on CNN, an outlet that, somehow, even though they apparently feature contributors who make questionable claims about science, is spared from search-engine truth-police grilling.
Moreover, the quote featured in the “reviewed claim” section is not even in The Federalist article. Google’s go-to site, Climate Feedback, an ideologically motivated site itself, argues that “Observed warming since the 1970s is consistent with climate model projections.” This is at the very least an arguable contention. Feel free to use your Google search engine to find thousands of pieces debating the accuracy modeling over the decades. This seems to be a normal, appropriate, and completely scientific debate to be engaged in.
More importantly, the article’s position is that the “alarmist” partisans cherry-pick projections hoping to scaremonger voters into making political decisions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that climate change isn’t happening. Then again, once you begin reading through the fact-check, you’ll quickly notice that it’s not really debunking The Federalist’s assertion at all (The Federalist is once again never even mentioned in the fact-check that allegedly debunks The Federalist); the participants are simply claiming that models, in general, have been correct that it’s getting hotter overall — which does not conflict with anything the article contends.
But if it rings true, it is true, I guess.
In theory, opinion sites will offer more speculation about what events and policy mean. These claims are prone to be challenged, and they should be. That’s part of our discourse. But as Lieberman points out, the Google fact-checking itself is often unconvincing and offered by biased sources.
Take the other “unproven” charge against The Federalist. This one, also by Snopes, claims to debunk an article that argues that vandals burned down a century-old bust of Abraham Lincoln in Chicago in broader protests about Confederate statues. Again, that wasn’t what the article argued. It argued that the vandalism — a term used by an alderman in Chicago, as well — was part of a broader effort to tear down “history” and monuments. Since a number of statues, including the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, had also been vandalized right around the same time, it’s certainly not out of bounds for a columnist to treat these incidents as a trend.
But if this is the standard for corrections and dissuading people from visiting a site, what possible reason could there be for left-wing sites that regularly make arguable or false assertions about economics, history, science, and politics, like Vox and ThinkProgress and many others, to be spared from this fact-checking? It’s one thing for us to read publications through filters. We do it all the time. But it’s another for a search engine to manipulate perceptions about those sites — and only conservative ones — before people even read them.
(Update 10/12: Google’s ‘fact-checker’ has removed two of the above claims – leaving the third claim, which I concede is the most speculative. Now let’s see it hold other sites to the same standard.)