The president this morning lashed out at Google on Twitter, accusing the company of manipulating millions of votes in the 2016 election to sway it toward Hillary Clinton. The authority on which he bases this serious accusation, however, is little more than supposition in an old paper reheated by months-old congressional testimony.
Trump’s tweet this morning actually cited no paper at all, in fact, though he did tag conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, perhaps asking them to investigate. It’s also unclear who he thinks should sue the company.
Coincidentally, Fox News had just mentioned the existence of such a report about five minutes earlier. Trump has also recently criticized Google and CEO Sundar Pichai over a variety of perceived slights.
In fact, the report was not “just issued,” and does not say what the president suggests it did. What both Fox and Trump appear to be referring to is a paper published in 2017 that described what the authors say was a bias in Google and other search engines during the run-up to the 2016 election.
If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard about this particular study, I can tell you why — it’s a very bad study. Its contents do not amount to anything, let alone evidence by which to accuse a major company of election interference.
The authors looked at search results for 95 people over the 25 days preceding the election and evaluated the first page for bias. They claim to have found that based on “crowdsourced” determinations of bias, the process for which is not described, that most search results, especially on Google, tended to be biased in favor of Clinton.
No data on these searches, such as a sample search and results and how they were determined to be biased, is provided. There’s no discussion of the fact, for example, that Google routinely and openly tailors search results based on a person’s previous searches, stated preferences, location and so on.
In fact, Epstein’s “report” lacks all the qualifications of any ordinary research paper.
There is no abstract or introduction, no methods section to show the statistics work and definitions of terms, no discussion, no references. Without this basic information the document is not only incapable of being reviewed by peers or experts, but is indistinguishable from completely invented suppositions. Nothing in this paper can be in any way verified.
Robert Epstein freely references himself, however: a single 2015 paper in PNAS on how search results could be deliberately manipulated to affect a voter looking for information on candidates, and the many, many opinion pieces he has written on the subject, frequently on far-right outlets the Epoch Times and Daily Caller, but also non-partisan ones like USA Today and Bloomberg Businessweek.
The numbers advanced in the study are completely without merit. Citing math he does not describe, Epstein says that “a pro-Clinton bias in Google’s search results would over time, shift at least 2.6 million votes to Clinton.” No mechanism or justification for this assertion is provided, except a highly theoretical one based on ideas and assumptions from his 2015 study, which had little in common with this one. The numbers are, essentially, made up.
In other words, this so-called report is nothing of the kind — a nonfactual document written with no scientific justification of its claims written by someone who publishes anti-Google editorials almost monthly. It was not published in a journal of any kind, simply put online at a private nonprofit research agency called the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, where Epstein is on staff and which appears to exist almost solely to promote his work — such as it is.
(In response to my inquiry, AIBRT said that it is not legally bound to reveal its donors and chooses not to, but stated that it does not accept “gifts that might cause the organization to bias its research projects in any way.”)
Lastly, in his paper, Epstein speculates that Google may have been manipulating the data they were collecting for the report, citing differences between data from Gmail users and non-users, choosing to throw away all the former while still reporting of it:
As you can see, the search results seen by non-gmail users were far more biased than the results seen by gmail users. Perhaps Google identified our confidants through its gmail system and targeted them to receive unbiased results; we have no way to confirm this at present, but it is a plausible explanation for the pattern of results we found.
I leave it to the reader to judge the plausibility of this assertion.
If that were all, it would be more than enough. But Trump’s citation of this flimsy paper doesn’t even get the facts right. His assertion was that “Google manipulated from 2.6 million to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election,” and the report doesn’t even state that.
The source for this false claim appears to be Epstein’s recent appearance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in July. Here he received star treatment from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who asked him to share his expert opinion on the possibility of tech manipulation of voting. Cruz’s previous expert for this purpose was conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager.
Again citing no data, studies or mechanisms whatsoever, Epstein described 2.6 million as a “rock-bottom minimum” of votes that Google, Facebook, Twitter and others could have affected (he does not say did affected, or attempted to affect). He also says that in subsequent elections, specifically in 2020, “if all these companies are supporting the same candidate, there are 15 million votes on the line that can be shifted without people’s knowledge and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace.”
“The methods they are using are invisible, they’re subliminal, they’re more powerful than most any effects I’ve seen in the behavioral sciences,” Epstein said, but did not actually describe what the techniques are. Though he did suggest that Mark Zuckerberg could send out a “get out the vote” notification only to Democrats and no one would ever know — absurd.
In other words, the numbers are not only invented, but unrelated to the 2016 election, and inclusive of all tech companies, not just Google. Even if Epstein’s claims were anywhere near justifiable, Trump’s tweet mischaracterizes them and gets everything wrong. Nothing about any of this is anywhere close to correct.
Google issued a statement addressing the president’s accusation, saying, “This researcher’s inaccurate claim has been debunked since it was made in 2016. As we stated then, we have never re-ranked or altered search results to manipulate political sentiment.”
You can read the full “report” below:
EPSTEIN & ROBERTSON 2017-A Method for Detecting Bias in Search Rankings-AIBRT by TechCrunch on Scribd