On the latest season of the brilliant show “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” there’s a moment when roommate Titus is explaining how computers know what you’re searching for to Kimmy. “You know how Al Gore invented the internet? Well, he also invented a rhythm for it. It’s a powerful rhythm. It’s called the Al-Gore-rhythm.”
Perhaps that’s how Donald Trump thinks search engines really work. Recently, the President bemoaned the fact that if one searches “Donald Trump news,” the top search results are all negative stories or what the president deems “fake news.” The only clear reason this would be happening is that Google is biased against Donald Trump and is giving priority to the fake news against him.
All internet search engines, Google, Bing or even Pinterest, generate their results based on complex mathematical algorithms in order to place the result you are most likely to want closest to the top. Google is very good at letting people (marketers especially) know about changes to its algorithm and how it’s ranking content. Search engines are constantly changing their algorithms to make sure you find the thing you are actually looking for when you type in “that song where the guy goes ‘oh oh oh oh whoa’” and get the song “Tarzan Boy” by Baltimora.
The internet contains billions of articles, sites, pages, videos, songs and images. The only way to ever be able to actually find the needle you want in that hay mountain is with complex math. As it turns out, math is actually really hard to bias. Numbers don’t lie, but people do use them to stretch the truth.
On the marketing side, we use the algorithms to find out what people are searching for and advertise our products (which may not appear at the top of the normal or “organic” search results) so they appear at the top of searches. That’s why you see search results that will say “paid ad” or “sponsored content.”
All of this to say that it’s not impossible for a search engine to somehow find a way to potentially have a minor tweak on results, but outside of extreme authoritarian regimes (see: China and North Korea), it’s just not going to happen. The entire business models of these search engines is that they show you the content you are looking for. By giving you results you don’t want, they make it more likely you won’t use their product. Capitalism actually got one right this time.
That’s sort of the weird thing about all this; you have a person who professes to be a businessman and big on “freedom” wanting to dictate to a private business orders that would cause it to lose customers. Trump has said Google’s search results need to be “looked into.” The only countries where the government looks into what search engines results are are extremely authoritarian. Authoritarianism, capitalism and freedom; one of these things is not like the other.
If Trump wants the news stories he likes to come up in searches, I advise he simply buy some Google Adwords connected to his links. Might I suggest the words “fake,” “impeach” and “conspiracy?”