If you type the word “idiot” into a Google Image search, one man’s face will be staring back at you. He is arguably the most powerful person in the world, US President Donald Trump.
Results like this have fuelled a conspiracy theory held by some Republican leaders in the US — and espoused by Mr Trump himself — that tech companies like Google skew search results and rank news articles to favour Democrats, and more liberal viewpoints.
Overnight, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified in front of Congress to answer for such crimes.
He was asked by Californian Democrat senator Zoe Lofgren (who was trying to refute the idea of liberal bias) about the particularly unflattering results.
“Right now, if you google the word “idiot” under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up,” she said.
She’s certainly not wrong. Here’s what currently happens when you search idiot in Google images.
“How would that happen?” the senator asked.
In response, the Google chief executive gave a general overview of how Google produces such results.
“Any time you type in a keyword, as Google we have gone out and crawled and stored copies of billions of (website) pages in our index. And we take the keyword and match it against their pages and rank them based on over 200 signals — things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it,” he said.
“And based on that, at any given time, we try to rank and find the best search results for that query. And then we evaluate them with external raters, and they evaluate it to objective guidelines. And that’s how we make sure the process is working.”
But what’s really going on here?
While Google makes no bones about the fact that its search function isn’t always fair or completely accurate, it shows how the company’s algorithms can be manipulated — just ask US politician Rick Santorum who had his name co-opted by an online campaign to mean a type of discharge created during anal sex following anti-gay comments he made.
After Green Day song American Idiot was used by protesters in the UK during a visit by Donald Trump, internet activists worked to entrench the connection between the pejorative and images of the leader.
That mainly involved doing things like upvoting a post on Reddit with the word “idiot” and a picture of the US President — a type of campaign commonly known as Google Bombing.
Earlier in the year, media outlets started reporting on the uncanny search results, so now you mostly get pictures related to news articles (which rank well) explaining why Mr Trump turns up when you look for pictures of an idiot.
A CENSORED SEARCH ENGINE?
The Google CEO’s appearance on Capitol Hill comes after he angered members of a US Senate panel in September by declining their invitation to testify about foreign governments’ manipulation of online services to sway US elections. His no-show at that hearing was marked by an empty chair for Google alongside the Facebook and Twitter executives who did appear.
During the hearing, he faced questions on privacy, data collection, China, Russia and political bias.
He reiterated the company’s position that it has no plans “right now” to launch a censored search engine in China.
In November, Google employees signed an open letter calling on their employer to cancel its plans to build a censored search engine for China.
If Google does go into China with its search engine business, Mr Pichai promised to be “fully transparent” about the move. He said that he wants Google to be in China serving Chinese users.
Pichai says Google is not “currently” working on a search product in China. Define: “currently”— Olivia Solon (@oliviasolon)
INSTRUMENT OF FREEDOM OR INSTRUMENT OF CONTROL?
Tech giants like Google and Facebook that track us and hoover up our data to serve us with ads and news stories, have faced increased scrutiny and the threat of increased regulation from governments around the world, including Australia.
US House of Representatives majority leader Kevin McCarthy opened the House Judiciary Committee hearing by noting a “widening gap of distrust” between tech companies and the American people. He asked whether tech companies are “serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control” in the US and beyond.
WATCH: Alex Jones repeatedly yells ‘Google is evil’
Police tell him to control himself, that he’s in a public hallway and will be arrested if he continues to cause disruption. pic.twitter.com/2hZ2QvylGi— Evan Rosenfeld (@Evan_Rosenfeld)
He also expressed concerns that Google’s business practices may have been influenced by employees’ political bias against conservatives. The question of bias has dogged tech companies for years, but there has been no credible evidence that political leanings factor into Google’s search algorithm.
Meanwhile Jerrold Nadler of New York, the committee’s top Democrat, called the notion of bias a “delusion” and a “right-wing conspiracy theory”.