Monday, November 12, 2018
Business

PolitiFact: No, 96% of Google news stories on Trump aren’t from left-wing outlets

The statement

Says "96 percent of (Google News) results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media."

President
Donald Trump, Aug. 28 in a tweet

The ruling

The 96 percent figure appears to come from a post on PJ Media, a conservative site.

"Is Google manipulating its algorithm to prioritize left-leaning news outlets in their coverage of President Trump?" Paula Bolyard, PJ Media’s supervising editor, wrote in the article. "It sure looks that way based on recent search results for news on the president."

To test the premise, Bolyard performed a Google search for "Trump" using the search engine’s "News" tab and analyzed the results using a media bias chart.

Of 76 total stories, most came from outlets such as CNN, the Washington Post and NBC. Only three came up from the Wall Street Journal, which is labeled right-leaning by the chart.

Bolyard wrote that she repeated her search "multiple times using different computers (registered to different users) and Google returned similar results."

Bolyard acknowledged the study is "not scientific," though she did conclude that "the results suggest a pattern of bias against right-leaning content."

But this conclusion is debatable, and Trump’s reporting of the results is more problematic still.

There is broad agreement that the factors that go into Google’s algorithms for news searches are opaque. And the lack of transparency can allow theories about ideological bias to flourish.

They "depend on a lot of factors, including what other people are searching for, what they’re clicking on, what sites link to a given search result, whether the website is optimized for mobile, and even whether the site supports encrypted HTTPS," said Jeremy Gillula, tech policy director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But with all that said, Google’s search algorithms are still a black box, and we’d prefer if Google gave users more information and control over the factors that influence search results."

In a statement, Google said that ideological factors do not play a role in its algorithms.

"When users type queries into the Google Search bar, our goal is to make sure they receive the most relevant answers in a matter of seconds," the statement said. "Search is not used to set a political agenda, and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology."

Even if one considers Google’s algorithmic factors to be "biases," that doesn’t necessarily mean they are ideological biases. Searches, for instance, are widely believed to favor newer content and original sources rather than aggregations.

At the very least, there should be a fair amount of variability in search results over time. A study made during one snapshot in time, such as the one published in PJ Media, will not produce the same results a few hours later, as new articles come online.

Bolyard, in an email interview with PolitiFact, noted that she mentioned some of the caveats in her article. However, Trump made no indication in his tweets that the findings could be chalked up to anything beyond ideological bias.

A more problematic aspect of the study is the metric used to label websites.

To determine "left" and "right," Bolyard used a chart of media outlets assembled by Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS correspondent who hosts the Sunday morning program Full Measure for Sinclair Broadcasting, a network of local stations that has taken a pro-Trump editorial stance.

The chart is not neutral evidence supporting Trump’s point, and it labels anything not overtly conservative as "left." In the "left" category are such rigorously mainstream outlets as the Associated Press and Reuters. The three big broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, CBS — are considered "left," as are the Washington Post and the New York Times. Other media outlets that produce a large amount of content every day, including CNN, NPR, Politico, USA Today and CNBC, are labeled "left."

This means that most of media entities that produce large amounts of widely read and cited news content — factors that might well give them a leg up in the Google algorithm — are defined by the chart, and thus by the PJ Media study, as "left-wing." So, by its design, the study guarantees that an enormous percentage of Trump news coverage would fall into what the chart defines as "left."

Moreover, the "left" category lumps these large-staffed, comprehensive news outlets in with genuinely liberal-to-left outlets, such as the Daily Kos, Salon, the Nation, Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo and Media Matters.

We rate the statement False.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

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