A couple of years ago, I heavily used sites like Reddit, Fark, Drudge Report, Techmeme, and Yahoo to disseminate the news. There is so much out there that finding the right stories to read can be challenging, particularly when an issue is widely covered. I’m not a fan of any particular news site. I just want the news itself.
When it became clear that all of them, even Yahoo, were biased based upon either the political agendas of the people voting on the stories (such as with left-leaning Reddit) or the political agendas of an editorial staff (such as with Drudge and Yahoo), I decided to shift to Google News. It allegedly uses an algorithm to determine what stories will hit its list and it allows users to customize their experience by favoring or eliminating sources and picking topics to follow.
Things have changed. It’s clear that the algorithm used by Google is either hand-picked in part by a liberal agenda or that the algorithm is designed to find the stories that favor particular ideologies.
Had I read the previous sentence in a vacuum, I would have dismissed it as a conspiracy theory. The problem is that I’ve seen it very clearly happening over the past few weeks. It’s obvious when you know what to recognize.
Before we go into examples, it’s important to have an idea of how the algorithm likely works. Nobody knows for sure, but knowing how Google operates we can make a very educated guess about the factors that go into the algorithm:
- Domain Trust: There is no official phrase that Google has made public about how it decides which news publications to trust more than others, but it seems to favor those with lots of content, a long history of journalism, and buzz in the form of social media, comments, and links to the stories themselves. CNN, Fox News, NY Times, and Washington Post are examples of publications that benefit from this.
- Timeliness: The algorithm clearly wants to put the most recent stories at the top, but it’s not absolute. Just because the Latin Post might put out a story after USA Today doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be presented above it. The other factors are more prominent, but decay of newsworthiness over time is important.
- Weighted Citations: Unlike pure domain trust, an individual story that is referenced by other major publications will get a bump. For example, TMZ posts many stories that never show up high on Google News, but when it breaks a story and big publications link to it as the source, it gets top billing.
- Local Influence: If a story happens in Chicago and the Chicago Tribune covers it, that story will often get higher billing than the CNN variation of the story.
- Topical Authority: When Space.com posts about an asteroid, it will get better placement than when they post about legislation in Washington DC pertaining to NASA budgets. Even though the second topic is relevant to the site, political publications will still get top billing.
- Agenda Factor: This is the part that Google would flatly deny, mostly because one can assume very few people in the organization even know this is a factor in the algorithm. It is.
The last one is obviously the controversial one, but it becomes clear when you closely examine the headlines. For example, the NY Times or Washington Post will almost always get their stories above left-wing publications like Salon or Slate except when it pertains to certain candidates. Stories about George W. Bush, Donald Trump, or Marco Rubio get pushed down if they come from Salon or Slate, but they are the top headlines for an extended period of time if they’re about Ted Cruz or Ben Carson.
It’s also topically shifted in favor of agendas. Google is very anti-gun. When a concealed-carry gun holder shot and killed an armed robber in Chicago, there were dozens of stories on major publications that focused on the facts. The story that was given top billing was the single story among the 72 that focused on the outrage by the son-in-law of the robber who was killed, saying that something didn’t add up. This was from the Chicago Tribune, a publication that had multiple stories that focused on the facts, but Google News pulled the single story that criticized the actions of the shooter. All other stories pointed to the fact that the robber was waiving a gun at the employees and forcing a 17-year-old employee into the back room when he was shot and killed. The police said that initial indications were that the concealed-carry gun owner acted appropriately, coming just short of calling the person a hero. Google didn’t like that, so they pulled a story with a quote calling into question the actions of the shooter rather than the actions of his father-in-law robber.
To see the algorithm most acutely at work, one needs only look at the coverage of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Anything remotely negative about Sanders will get an extended spotlight on it while positive stories are buried. The exact opposite is true about Clinton. It’s as if the algorithm has been replaced by someone on the Clinton campaign staff.
This type of spin is visible everywhere. Drudge is as pro-Republican as Reddit is pro-Democrat. The difference is that these sites don’t try to disguise the fact. Google News is supposed to be unbiased, but a close examination shows that they’re feigning unbiased reporting, pretending it’s an algorithm that determines the news when there are clearly agendas at work.
The best thing conscientious news hounds can do is to explore deeply. Google News might have the market cornered when it comes to finding all of the stories, but don’t accept what they tell you at the top. Dig deeper. Look into important stories in-depth before selecting which stories to read. You don’t want your perspectives to be skewed unwittingly by an aggressive agenda-based algorithm.