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Trump Hauls Out Google Conspiracy Theory for Another Airing

By David Jones
Sep 30, 2016 2:53 PM PT

Perhaps still reeling from what's widely viewed as the bruising he took in a debate watched by more than 80 million people on TV earlier this week -- countless more online -- Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Wednesday opened a campaign rally with a previously discredited attack.

Trump began his speech at the Waukesha, Wisconsin, event by touting an online Google poll that showed him up two points nationwide -- but then followed that by saying Google's search engine was biased in favor of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

Google was manipulating search results to suppress negative stories about her, Trump claimed.

Trump did not elaborate on the basis for his accusation or indicate whether his campaign had made any formal complaint about the issue. Campaign officials did not respond to our request for further details.

Debunked Conspiracy Theory

The allegation echoes a conspiracy theory that surfaced after Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination earlier this year. In brief, it accuses Google of meddling with its autocomplete algorithm to prevent negative results from turning up in response to searches of Hillary Clinton's name.

However, Google's autocomplete feature is designed to avoid completing name searches with offensive or inappropriate material regardless of who is the subject of the search, explained Tamar Yehoshua, vice president of product management for Google Search, in a post published in response to those charges.

Autocompletion is not an exact science, and the output of prediction algorithms depends in part on the popularity and freshness of search terms, Yehoshua wrote.

Those making the accusations had suggested there was a conspiracy between the Clinton campaign and Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google parent Alphabet and a supporter of President Obama.

A Google spokeperson declined to comment on Trump's Wednesday remark but pointed to the company's earlier denials of bias and its explanation of the autocomplete feature.

Clinton campaign officials did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

Difficult to Pin Down

"Trump's accusation is so vague, it is hard to say just what we are talking about, let alone whether it has any merit," Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, told the E-Commerce Times.

It is unlikely that an outside party can predict with any degree of accuracy whether Google's algorithms are biased one way or the other, suggested Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

Google's news aggregation service also is based on algorithms, as are a great many online information services.

"It's impossible to make a definitive analysis of whether Google's news feed has a bias against Donald Trump," Krewell told the E-Commerce Times, "but Google's news feed is based on an algorithm which likely weighs the relative importance of the sources.

The news algorithm, therefore, would favor widely read sources and more reliable sources over smaller, less established niche sites.

Facebook Brouhaha

A controversy over Facebook's alleged algorithm-tampering erupted earlier this year, following publication of an inside story accusing staff of manipulating its Trending Topics.

Human team members were curating the feed, according to the report, downplaying certain information that came from politically conservative outlets.

The company conducted an internal investigation and found no systematic effort to manipulate trending topics. However, after sitting down with a group of conservatives, including media pundits and officials, CEO Mark Zuckerberg agreed to make several changes in how it compiled the Trending Topics.

For example, Facebook ended the policy of relying on outside websites or news outlets to determine whether stories were worthy of inclusion.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

How important is a candidate's knowledge of technology in winning your vote?
Extremely -- technology is at the center of most of the world's big problems and solutions.
Very -- a candidate who doesn't understand technology can't relate to young people.
Somewhat -- a general understanding is sufficient.
Not very -- choosing good advisers is more important than direct knowledge.
Not at all -- technology is often a distraction from more important issues.