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An unsubstantiated claim by the little-known conservative news site PJ Media that Google is biased against Donald Trump—amplified on Monday by Drudge Report and the Fox Business host Lou Dobbs—was, perhaps predictably, picked up on Tuesday by the president himself. “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD,” Trump tweeted. “96% of results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous.” In a second tweet, Trump added ominously that the alleged bias—PJ Media claims Google manipulates its algorithm to prioritize left-leaning news outlets—“will be addressed.” (Both tweets were originally sent around 5 A.M., but subsequently deleted an re-posted closer to 11.) Several hours later, in an appearance on the White House lawn, Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, confirmed that the government will indeed be “taking a look” at whether Silicon Valley is discriminating against him.
What that means, in practice, is anybody‘s guess. In a statement Tuesday morning, Google shot back that “search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.” But Trump’s decision to attack a tech platform for supposed anti-conservative bias has been years in the making. In 2016, Gizmodo published a story with the headline “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News,” in which Facebook editors who tended to the Trending section asserted it was not entirely based on a neutral algorithm, as Facebook had claimed, but that stories that went viral in right-wing circles were regularly axed from Trending through human intervention. The story caused a major political headache for Facebook. (John Cook, who edited the piece, has since expressed second thoughts about running it.) After its publication, Mark Zuckerberg met with conservative leaders and figureheads, and Facebook reconfigured its Trending section.
But the Gizmodo story was only the beginning of tech’s conservative nightmare. In the wake of the election, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have each made deliberate decisions about filtering out misleading news, which has often meant cracking down on fringe outlets like Infowars that the far right holds dear. These steps have inflamed the right, drawing blowback from the likes of Ted Cruz, who grilled Zuckerberg earlier this year about why a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day page had disappeared from Facebook, and from Republicans who claim they’re being “shadow banned” on Twitter. More recently, these protestations have made their way to the president, who has seized on them with glee. His ill-informed Tuesday morning rampage against Google News comes after a tweet last week in which he declared that “too many voices are being destroyed” by social networks, shortly after Apple, Google, and Facebook made the decision to ban Infowars and its chief conspiracist, Alex Jones.
Of course, Trump’s tacit endorsement of Jones suggests his protestations have little to do with objective truth. Instead, they revolve around a Trumpian concept of “balance,” in which there are two sides to every issue, even if one side is patently false. Fox News is good, because their reporting is generally fawning. CNN is bad because they are frequently critical. Any and all news, in this formulation, is considered good or “fake,” based on the degree to which it pleases Trump. (On Monday, Trump tweeted that a poll showed his approval rating was is at 52 percent, even though no such poll exists. Trump has not taken down the tweet, despite widespread media reporting about the falsified claim.) His approach is absurd, but it’s likely a winning issue with his base, many of whom are naturally suspicious of big tech companies, and paranoid that “liberal”-run Facebook, Google, and Twitter are the enemies of free speech—a theory recently (if unwittingly) endorsed by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, who acknowledged that his personal politics veer to the left of center.
These arguments are often made in bad faith, yet tech executives have so far been forced to engage with them, in an attempt to retain conservative users and skirt Republicans’ wrath. Trump’s tweets again put Silicon Valley in a perilous position, particularly if lawmakers with subpoena power choose to indulge him.