Robert Epstein tried a simple experiment in the run-up to the presidential election: running searches on Google and Yahoo for political topics.
The results were stunning. Google searches returned twice as many pro-Hillary Clinton news articles as Yahoo searches.
Perhaps even more stunning was that men and blue-state residents saw more than double the number of pro-Clinton articles than women and people living in red states, Mr. Epstein, of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, and Robert E. Robertson, a professor at Northeastern University, argued in a report this year.
Mr. Epstein said he is still studying what caused the bias but worries that Google’s search algorithm — a form of artificial intelligence that chooses what results a searcher is looking for — ranked pro-Clinton articles ahead of positive articles about her opponent, Donald Trump.
Those algorithms have become the modern-day Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow, deciding what news reaches the eyes and ears of Americans in an increasingly Google-Facebook-Twitter media environment.
In recent months, the focus has been on whether the companies were able to be manipulated by Russian-connected operatives who attempted to sow “chaos” in the U.S. surrounding last year’s elections.
But the power of the companies to shape American politics goes well beyond that.
“The social media companies are the gatekeepers,” said Frank Foer, a writer at The Atlantic and former editor of the New Republic who has authored a book on social media’s power. “Whatever choices these companies make to elevate or bury information is very powerful and will have a big impact on what people read.”
Conservatives say they have long suspected that some of the internet giants discriminate against them and their content. They point to whistleblowers who have acknowledged they were pushed to treat conservatives differently.
The companies have denied the claims. They insist the algorithms are designed to capture the most-read news stories across the political spectrum. A computer program cannot distinguish between liberal and conservative, they say.
Mr. Foer, who says he is concerned about the level of power wielded by the algorithms the tech companies use, dismisses accusations of a liberal bias as “conservative paranoia.”
Studies allege bias
But an emerging set of studies suggests there is something to the concerns.
Mr. Epstein and Mr. Robertson, in their research, looked at 4,045 election-related searches on Google and Yahoo during a 25-day period from mid-October through Election Day. They found that the pro-Clinton articles swamped pro-Trump news.
“The algorithms are not programmed with an equal time rule,” said Mr. Epstein, a vocal Clinton supporter. “They are programmed to put one thing ahead of another in a way that is highly secret and ever-changing.”
He said his experiments show the power of news searches to affect politics and has found that he could boost support for a candidate by as much as 63 percent after just one Google search session. That is based on five experiments Mr. Epstein ran in two countries in which study participants changed their opinions of a candidate based on a manipulated search engine. He has dubbed this the “search engine manipulation effect.”
A separate study by Nicholas Diakopoulos, now at Northwestern University, analyzed the Google search results on Dec. 1, 2015. He searched for the names of all 16 presidential candidates and discovered Democrats, on average, had seven favorable search results among Google’s top 10. Republican candidates, meanwhile, had only 5.9 positive articles in the top 10.
Mrs. Clinton had five positive search results but only one negative on the first page, according to the study. Mr. Trump had four positive and three negative search results on the first page. Sen. Bernard Sanders, another Democratic candidate, had nine positive results without a single negative, and Republican candidate Sen. Ted Cruz had no positive results.
Mr. Diakopoulos ran a second study during the summer before the election and found the vast majority of sources selected for Google’s news box were left-leaning outlets. The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post accounted for nearly 50 percent of Google news sources. Articles from Fox News, the only conservative news source among the 113 featured by Google during Mr. Diakopoulos’ study, appeared about 1 percent of the time.
Google eliminated the news box in November. Company spokeswoman Maggie Shiels said the box’s algorithm picked up news across the internet.
“There are several hundred signals that go into surfacing an answer,” she said. “The algorithm does not focus on political party or ideology.”
The company is secretive about the algorithm and insists it is constantly tinkering with the formula. But it says it promotes articles based on “freshness, location, relevance and diversity.”
“As a result, stories are sorted without regard to political viewpoint or ideology and you can choose from a wide variety of perspectives on any given story,” the company says on its online explainer.
Analysts have caught some deeper glimpses over the years, based on testing and on information gleaned from patent applications Google has filed, saying Google judges trustworthiness and importance of a news site, how much content it produces and even length of stories to gauge whether to elevate a site’s content.
News operations, just like other website owners, invest a lot of time and money trying to figure out Google’s system, and an entire industry known as search engine optimization, or SEO, claims to offer shortcuts to earn more eyeballs.
Patents suggest search engines may be increasingly tailoring results to the individual’s history, promoting websites or story themes the searcher seems to select the most.
Mr. Diakopoulos said someone who searches for positive news about Trump is more likely to get exposed to conservative news, while someone who searches for left-leaning topics will receive more liberal news.
And then there is the issue of the press itself.
“If 70 percent of the news media is liberal, you can expect there to be some unequal results to come from a search engine,” Mr. Diakopoulos said.
That means the social media may not be biased, but instead is a reflection of the bias perceived in traditional media, said S. Robert. Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University.
“If you are getting a certain perspective from the major news outlets, that is going to be passed on through social media, which is the last link in the chain,” he said.
But Mr. Epstein said the concern about who is creating the algorithm is just as concerning as the program itself.
“When accused of a liberal bias, these companies say, ‘It’s not us; it’s the algorithm,” he said. “That is so hilarious because they programmed the algorithm.”
Facebook workers raise questions
Accusations of an indirect bias may not carry as much weight if not accompanied by accusations of direct bias by the social media companies.
In May 2016, a group of several former Facebook workers told technology blog Gizmodo that they routinely suppressed news about prominent conservatives, including Mitt Romney, Rand Paul and the American Conservative Union’s Conservative Political Action Conference. The employees, who worked as ‘news curators,’ also said stories reported by conservative outlets such as Brietbart and Newsmax were dismissed unless The New York Times, BBC or CNN covered the same article.
Facebook denied the accusations and said an internal study found virtually identical rates of liberal and conservative new topics. The company did concede bias could have occurred through improper human actions and it would take steps to prevent it from happening in the future. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg invited 16 conservative leaders to the company’s headquarters for a meeting.
Mr. Zuckerberg opened the meeting acknowledging that both he and Facebook are liberal and that he knows little about the conservative movement, according those who attended. But Mr. Zuckerburg conceded that if Facebook wants to be an open marketplace of ideas, then it must be open to conservative viewpoints.
“The meeting opened on a positive, honest note and went that way throughout the whole meeting,” said Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center.
Mr. Bozell said Facebook has made a sincere effort since the meeting to include conservative voices.
“We’ve never had a serious problem with Facebook,” he said. “Does that make us the exception to the rule? I don’t know.”
Zachary Moffatt, CEO of Targeted Victory, a Republican political strategy group, agreed that Mr. Zuckerberg was sincere and concerned about the perception of a liberal bias. Mr. Moffatt, who is working with Facebook ahead of the Senate hearings on the Russian ad buy, said Mr. Zuckerberg’s staff has followed up since the meeting.
“I think Facebook is doing more to address the unconscious structural bias than other partners in this space,” he said.
Conservative commentator Steven Crowder was among the voices blocked by the former Facebook workers. He said a social media bias against conservatives is real but sometimes gets obscured by conservatives claiming censorship when, in fact, they violated a site’s rules by spreading fake news or using a copyrighted image or song without permission.
“There are too many conservatives screaming censorship, but they need to make sure they are not embarrassing Facebook with false stories or too many pop-ups,” Mr. Crowder said. “That does a disservice to everyone who has been harmed by some of these practices. It does happen, but, unfortunately, the people it happens to are not the ones who scream the loudest.”
Mr. Crowder won a settlement with Facebook after filing a legal action seeking more information about the company’s advertising practices. He claimed Facebook refused to acknowledge his advertising payments. Mr. Crowder said he could not discuss whether the issue came from bias or mismanagement by Facebook’s advertising team because of the settlement agreement.
It’s not just Facebook and Google. Earlier this month, Twitter blocked a campaign ad by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, claiming it included “an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong reaction.” In the ad, Ms. Blackburn said she helped stop Planned Parenthood from selling baby body parts.
Twitter initially said it would air the ad for Ms. Blackburn, who is running for U.S. Senate, if the line about the sale of baby body parts is removed. After the congresswoman went public, the social media site backtracked and allowed the ad to run.
“The damage being done to conservatives is almost incalculable,” said Seton Motley, a technology policy specialist and president of Less Government, a conservative organization dedicated to reducing government power. “If network television media bias can give a candidate a 4- to 6-point advantage and social media giants have more power than the networks, can we even quantify a number?”
Google insists there is no truth to Mr. Epstein’s hypothesis that it could secretly influence an election outcome.
“Claims that Google News is biased or favors one political point of view over another are just not true,” Ms. Shiels said. “The whole ethos of the product is to give people access to a rich and diverse world of news, views and perspectives. We are able to do that thanks to the more than 80,000 publications from around the globe that are part of the corpus.”
Companies are politically active
The companies’ denials are complicated by their executives’ perceived political leanings.
Employees and affiliates of Alphabet Inc., a Google holding company, donated nearly $1.6 million to Mrs. Clinton’s presidential aspirations and about $359,000 to her Democratic primary opponent Mr. Sanders, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, received roughly $23,000 from the company.
In fact, the top 16 candidates who received contributions from Alphabet employees were all Democrats. The top Republican was Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, who received just over $23,000.
Mr. Walden is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is reviewing net neutrality legislation. Net neutrality, if imposed, would block internet providers from charging for or blocking online content.
Google and other social media companies have opposed such measures.
In total, 63 percent of Alphabet contributions in last year’s election went to Democrats and 22 percent went to Republicans — even though Republicans dominate elected offices at the national and state levels. The remaining 12 percent went to support independent candidates.
Ms. Shiels declined to comment on the donations.
Facebook also donated heavily to the Democratic Party. Of the nearly $4.6 million Facebook employees and affiliates spent on last year’s election, 67 percent went toward Democrats and 32 percent went to Republican candidates. Mrs. Clinton received $478,000 from Facebook, while Mr. Trump received about $4,665.
“These companies are shockingly political,” said Scott Cleland, who has authored a book about Google. “They are the gatekeepers of all the world’s information, and everything they do has a political angle to it.”
The relationships were also personal.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg was one of those in email communication with John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman, according to messages released by WikiLeaks.
“I want HRC to win badly,” Ms. Sandberg said in one missive. In a later email, she told Mr. Podesta she was looking forward to working with him “to elect the first woman President of the United States” and she was “thrilled” by the progress Mrs. Clinton was making.
A representative for Ms. Sandberg declined to comment.
The leaked Podesta emails also showed that Google had loaned its jet to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign staff on several occasions. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, publicly supported Mrs. Clinton, and the Clinton campaign’s chief technology officer, Stephanie Hannon, and chief product officer, Osi Imeokparia, were former Google executives.
The Obama administration also built deep links with Google, where 22 former White House officials worked, while 31 Google executives went to work for the White House or were appointed to federal advisory boards, including the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology and the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, according to a study by the Campaign for Accountability.
In total, nearly 250 people shuttled from government service to Google or vice versa during the Obama administration.
The same study found that Google representatives attended White House meetings more than once a week, on average, from the start of the Obama presidency through October 2015. During that same period, Google lobbyists visited the White House 128 times, the most of any lobbyist during that time.
“What Google and Facebook lost with a Trump victory is cronyism,” Mr. Motley said.
Google and Facebook have increased their lobbying efforts over the past few months as Congress scrutinizes their power. Facebook spent $285 million on lobbyists from July through September, a 41 percent increase over the same period last year. Google spent $417 million during those three months, including hiring Republican lobbyists Jochum Shore & Trossevin PC to fight a bill that would penalize tech companies for content that promotes sex trafficking. The companies are fighting the bill because it weakens some of their legal protections.
Both Republicans and Democrats have come to respect the power and reach of the tech giants. Although Mr. Trump’s Twitter account gets the most attention, his campaign said it was Facebook that helped them win the presidential election.
Brad Parscale, who ran Mr. Trump’s digital team, said in a recent interview with CBS’s “60 minutes” that he asked Facebook employees to be “embedded inside our offices” to help craft carefully tailored ads he said reached voters they never could have with television ads.
“I think Donald Trump won, but I think Facebook was the method — it was the highway in which his car drove on,” he told CBS.
Patrick Hynes, an adviser to the 2008 McCain and 2012 Romney Republican presidential campaigns, said he expects social media companies to double down on their support for Democrats in the 2020 election. He predicted efforts to silence Mr. Trump and others, similar to Twitter’s attempt to ban Ms. Blackburn’s ad.
“The social media companies will engage in full-scale censorship with the approval or rejection of advertising content in the next presidential election,” he said. “Trump’s advertising will be critiqued in a way that they will not do to the Democrats.”