Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in Wednesday’s House Big Tech antitrust hearing that there is a “manual component” to the creation of media watchlists that have resulted in The American Spectator and other conservative news outlets being delisted from its search results.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl.) asked Pichai whether or not individual Google employees create and maintain Google’s “fringe ranking” and “deceptive_news domain blacklist,” as reported by the Daily Caller last year. The American Spectator’s website was included on this blacklist, and its articles were excluded from being included on Google News.
Now, we learn that Google can also manipulate search results. While Pichai has claimed that searches are prioritized purely by Google’s algorithm and so are not affected by political bias, evidence suggests that employees’ choices about who is included on the list can affect search results.
“It seems to be no coincidence that it’s sites like the Western Journal, American Spectator, Daily Caller, and Breitbart that received the ire or the negative treatment as a consequence of your manual tooling,” Gaetz said, “and it also seems noteworthy that whistle-blowers at your own company have spoken out.”
Pichai has denied the possibility of this manipulation in the past, despite a company memo saying otherwise. He repeated Wednesday that “we don’t manually tune. Was … there someone behind the curtain tuning a search result? We don’t.”
Yet he acknowledged Wednesday that individual Google employees are involved in creating lists of websites “identified as interfering in elections,” among other, alleged dangerous and anti-democratic practices, and said the manual approach is used only in “narrow circumstances.”
Gaetz cited former Google employee Mike Wacker as a “whistleblower” who believes those circumstances are not so narrow: “the manual blacklist targets … those who support President Trump, who hold a conservative viewpoint,” Gaetz summarized.
The American Spectator’s website has been de-indexed by Google as recently as last Tuesday. While it has since been restored, no explanation for its temporary disappearance has been offered.
Other websites that disappeared from the search engine Tuesday included Breitbart, Human Events, and RedState.
Many questions remain about how Google monitors websites whose viewpoints it considers outside the mainstream. Whether by man or machine, these delistings achieve the same result. Websites experience decreased traffic, suffer ad revenue losses, and more from Google’s lack of judgment and its attempts to police democratic engagement in political debate on its own terms.
Gaetz believes Google is using its “market dominance in search” to achieve the opposite of its stated intention: “I believe @Google is engaging in election interference,” he tweeted.