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Why SourceFed is Wrong About Google and Hillary Clinton

Digital publisher SourceFed is levying a pretty serious allegation at Google – namely that the search giant is consciously manipulating Google Instant search results to favor Hillary Clinton in her campaign for the Democratic nomination.

You can watch their explanation video, featuring SourceFed Host/Writer Matt Lieberman here. Update (2/2/17): Perhaps as an admission of fault (and worried about being labeled “fake news”), SourceFed has finally hidden the video on their YouTube account:

sourcefedvideo

It’s entirely possible that there’s manipulation of the election process via social media … however this video is in no way evidence of any conscious manipulation. Identifying that sort of pattern as an end user is extraordinarily difficult (which is the scary part) – and is certainly not achievable by a few people searching from a handful of devices in a Los Angeles office. Hopefully SourceFed relied on more than that – but thus far they’ve published none of their methodology. Other media outlets are now fact-checking SourceFed.

Update: Matt Cutts has weighed in and debunked the claims. The short answer is that Google doesn’t show pejorative results in Google Instant results for anyone (not just Hillary Clinton).

Here’s the problem: in order to make this claim, they would need verification from the same experiment replicated on hundreds of different computers (also browsers, devices, and time periods).

They would also need to standardize their measures, which would be nearly impossible because so many people use Google services and have individually-tailored instant search results delivered to them based on what Google knows about them through their Gmail content, YouTube comments and preferences, etc. Essentially they would need access to a random sample of hundreds (if not thousands) of users’ Google accounts to conduct searches from.

You can test this now if you’re signed into Google: search for “hillary clinton cri” and see what shows up. If Google is consciously manipulating the results, one would expect the same favorable treatment of Clinton to show up for every user (despite their individually-tailored preferences) – and yet this is not the case. My results differ:

mysearchofhillaryclintoncri

Even if a user isn’t signed in, Google (and Yahoo, Bing, Ask, etc.) still know a great deal about the user and make recommendations based on that information. For example, they know:

  • the user’s IP address (thusly location and ISP)
  • what time of day it is
  • the browser and version they’re using
  • whether they’re connecting via desktop or mobile.
  • what the user’s keystrokes were (including capitalization of proper names and how long it took to strike each key)

Even the information Google CAN’T get is a signal that Google uses to tailor searches to the user. That’s actually what we see in the SourceFed video – a Chrome browser with no user signed in:

Did Google Manipulate Search for Hillary    YouTube

Still with me? There’s more. Any results originally achieved are now going to be affected by the fact that SourceFed is influencing the results by encouraging people to test out their hypothesis (Observer Effect). Thousands of people are typing in “hillary clinton cri” and waiting (yet another signal to Google).

These are just SOME of the problems any researcher would need to overcome in order to detect this sort of bias as an end user.

The point SourceFed raises is legitimate – our digital media giants could be manipulating what we see for nefarious effect and we likely wouldn’t know about it until after the fact (if at all). However, what they’ve done is not evidence of such activity.

Update: After being rebutted by Google and SEO experts everywhere, SourceFed is doubling down on their lazy research and insisting they’re “comedians” so they get a pass on the requirement for rigorous research methodology in this response video. They admit to problems in their analysis, but claim they’re ‘ just asking questions, man’ – and they’ve left up the original video. What is particularly galling, however, is that they continue to promote the original [seriously-flawed] video – even as recently as today where it remains a pinned tweet on Twitter and a reshared post on Facebook mere minutes before this update was posted:


So “sorrynotsorry,” I guess. It’s kind of disturbing that SourceFed is owned by Discovery Communications and they tolerate this level of journalistic malpractice.

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