Turns out the secret to getting more blog posts out of me is to royally piss me off.
There’a a viral video claiming Google manipulated search results in favor of Hillary. I’ve seen several people watch this and say, “Yeah, seems likely.” In contrast, my reaction was to laugh at the video, and I did, before I found out how many people believed it. Then I was just mad.
I may regret this, but here’s why I find the whole affair preposterous.
While researching for a report about the last presidential primaries, SourceFed found that Google’s autocomplete suggestions for search queries involving Hillary differed from Yahoo’s and Bing’s. Google’s autocompletes were both more positive and less common than Yahoo’s and Bing’s suggestions. In contrast, a few autocompletes tried for Sanders and Trump matched across all search engines.
They then examine the relationship between Hillary and Eric Schmidt, to give Google a motive for biasing search results.
Autocompletes are Not Biased Just for Hillary
These are results found by Snopes. They have similar results for Trump. So, right off the bat it seems like the video didn’t try enough search queries.
When there is more uncertainty in what search the user is making, Google biases towards a more positive result. This is something that happens whenever the search includes anyone’s name. It hold for Sanders, and for Trump, and for Hillary, with no preference to any of them. See Google’s explanation here.
Note this is not the same as Google always having positive search results. If someone searches “Bernie Sanders so”, it’s likely it will get completed to “Bernie Sanders socialist”, since Sanders self-identifies as a democratic socialist. On the other hand, he does not identify as communist, making “Bernie Sanders communist” a rarer phrase. That’s why Google autocompletes “socialist” but not “communist”.
The only interesting thing here is that “socialist” has better sentiment than “communist”, and that it isn’t seen as an offensive enough word to avoid.
It Would Be Too Difficult to Hide The Conspiracy
Let’s set aside motive. Because actually, I don’t give a shit about the motive. I don’t care how Hillary and Eric Schmidt are related. A good motive increases the likelihood a person does something, but it doesn’t magically make that something happen.
So to play devil’s advocate, let’s ignore motive, and assume Google has been manipulating search results for Hillary. In such a world, what also has to be true?
Code acting specifically for Hillary had to be added in by a programmer. That code then made it past code review. No one on the entire search team noticed this, or anyone who did decided to stay quiet. Let’s say the team is on the order of 100 engineers. Search is a core product of Google and the company is over 50,000 employees, so I think this is a close enough guess.
This is a lot of people! And nobody acted as a whistleblower? Note that Sanders outraised Clinton in Silicon Valley, so there must be a sizable contingent of Sanders fans, who would certainly report this if it actually existed.
If the conspiracy is true, then none of those 100 engineers reported it, despite having direct access to Google’s codebase. And, despite a sizable fraction of them being Bernie supporters. AND, despite them knowing search very well because it is their literal full-time job.
This is incredibly preposterous. I’ve read many arguments for why Google would bias their autocomplete results, but I’ve yet to see anyone explain how a company could hide a conspiracy to influence the presidential election. Scandals are really, really hard to cover up - think of how many government scandals the public finds out about.
The Part Where I Go Off The Rails and Rant and Maybe Piss People Off
I could stop this post here, because all I needed to do was cast reasonable doubt on this video. But just for kicks, let me explain why I got trolled into writing this post.
SourceFed claims the conspiracy was so subtle that they only realized it after all the presidential primaries ended. Why? Why now, instead of after other big election days? It could be random chance, but I have another explanation.
Here’s my claim: while Bernie had a chance at becoming the nominee, people focused on ways Bernie could win. Once Bernie lost in California, instead of grieving in silence, they turned to finding reasons Bernie deserved to win. Because that’s how the narrative goes! The system is corrupt, it’s fighting against the One True Candidate at every turn. It doesn’t even have to be a conscious decision, a subconscious bias towards believing Bernie was cheated makes people susceptible to ballooning a small difference in autocomplete results into the extraordinary claim that Google is in cahoots with Hillary. They didn’t ask if their evidence was strong enough to back their claim, because it fit the storyline.
This is symptomatic of a trend I’ve noticed among the most intolerable Bernie supporters. I am not talking about the Bernie supporters who like his policies and really wanted him to win the nomination. The majority of Bernie supporters I interact with are reasonable people who don’t let their love for Bernie blind themselves from the realities of the situation.
No, I’m talking about the die hard fans. The ones who have deified Bernie practically to the level of the Second Coming. Here comes Bernie Sanders, our Lord and Savior, descending from the mountaintops of Vermont! Wielding pen and paper, he’ll fight the establishment at every turn! Where establishment = exactly every part of politics working against Bernie Sanders.
To these people, the idea that Hillary won because a large percentage of voters agreed with her platform is ridiculous. Instead, they’d prefer to believe Hillary bought all her votes, as if everyone who voted for her was a mindless drone or sheep. Because she’s establishment, and establishment is evil. Establishment is the bane of our existence. They are the Enemy, they hold all the keys. Whoever the establishment backs wins, which is why the two nominees are Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. YEP. THAT IS DEFINITELY WHAT HAPPENED.
Believing the system is corrupt is fine. Wanting to decrease money’s influence in politics is an admirable goal. Voting for a candidate you believe in is the whole point of democracy. And grieving when a candidate loses just shows how much you cared about electing the person you believed would make the world a better place.
But if you’re going to revel in tribalism, if you’re going to shift the boundaries whenever it lets you avoid getting mad about something you like, or if you’re going to decide someone’s intelligence based on which candidate they like, I will find it very hard to respect you. I will find it very hard to tolerate you. If you refuse to be civil in debates, I will ignore you.
In contrast, if you understand that people are messy, political beliefs are a maze of dead ends, and arguments where people respect each other are doable, then holy shit, we should keep in touch.
If you can’t do that? Well, then no. We shouldn’t keep in touch. It’s not worth my time, and you’ll find plenty of people to get mad at instead of me.
Oh, and if you make a conspiracy video with horrible justification, I’ll feel free to laugh at you. It’s not nice, in fact it’s downright mean, but I find it a hell of a lot easier than thinking about a world where people will believe something because an eight minute video pandered to them in the right way.