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Google workers discussed tweaking search after travel ban (wsj.com)
111 points by tysone on Sept 21, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 156 comments



This is an absurdly inaccurate headline. From the article:

> The email traffic, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, shows that employees proposed ways to “leverage” search functions and take steps to counter what they considered to be “islamophobic, algorithmically biased results from search terms ‘Islam’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Iran’, etc.” and “prejudiced, algorithmically biased search results from search terms ‘Mexico’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Latino’, etc.”

So, employees saw that the existing algorithm was inappropriately prioritising prejudiced results, and discussed tweaking the algorithm accordingly. I don't see what's controversial about that, unless your understanding of Google is so basic that you really think results are calculated by a magic computer program in the sky. It's always been programmed by humans, within various parameters. It isn't objective and it never has been.

Now, is it worth discussing the enormous power Google has over people's perceptions as a result of their market dominance? Absolutely. But using a headline like that just plays into conspiracy theory.


> So, employees saw that the existing algorithm was inappropriately prioritising prejudiced results, and discussed tweaking the algorithm accordingly.

I can well believe that those employees believed those results were 'prejudiced' and 'inappropriately prioritized', but I would point out that you are merely redescribing the WSJ's claims in different words and at no point have you offered a counter-argument or shown evidence that their discussed tweaks would have been non-partisan.

---

> The Google emails were written on Sunday, Jan. 29, two days after Mr. Trump signed the first version of his travel order, which generally restricted immigration to the U.S. from several majority-Muslim countries. One of the emails, from an employee of the Search Product Marketing division, explained that there was a “large brainstorm” going throughout the company’s marketing division over how to respond. “Overall idea: Leverage search to highlight important organizations to donate to, current news, etc. to keep people abreast of how they can help as well as the resources available for immigrations [sic] or people traveling,” the email says.

> “Can we launch an ephemeral experience that includes Highlights, up-to-date info from the US State Dept, DHS, links to donate to ACLU, etc?” the email added.

> Several officials responded favorably to the overall idea. “We’re absolutely in…Anything you need,” one wrote.

> “To the extent of my knowledge, we’d be breaching precedent if we only gave Highlights access to organizations that support a certain view of the world in a time of political conflict,” the public-affairs executive said. “Is that accurate? If so, would we be willing to open access to highlights to [organizations] that…actually support the ban?”


Wow! So basically Google employees were using what most people believe is an apolitical search engine to push their particular political view?

Maybe not so surprising after the TGIF post-election video.


It sounds a lot more like Google employees were trying to remove overtly political content from apolitical search terms, but you do you.


One of their ideas was to place banner ads for non-profits who were fighting against the ban.

It sounds like adding political content to the search, not removing it.


Yes, that post has been edited quite dramatically from when I replied to it, unfortunately I'm not able to edit mine any more.


I can well believe that those employees believed those results were 'prejudiced' and 'inappropriately prioritized'

I personally find it hard to believe that the average Google employee doesn't know and didn't, by that time, know, that Google's algorithms -- which introduce a selection pressure for content that causes outrage (in the name of greater "engagement", and that's been pretty thoroughly demonstrated) over content which contains facts -- were promoting awful things.

I find it very easy to believe that the average Google employee simply didn't care about that up until the moment it started affecting their friends and colleagues (the "Muslim ban" would have impacted some Google employees' ability to travel). Up until then, "politics" was something that happened to other people, and so they didn't have to bother about it.


Exactly. I used to think of myself as apolitical. But there's no "outside" the system.

I could ignore politics because the existing political dynamics worked for me and the people I cared about. This was tenable for me because the US was for decades controlled by centrists who agreed on a lot. But as XKCD graphs nicely, the era of centrism was basically 1940-1980:

https://xkcd.com/1127/large/

After that, the center-right block in the House steadily diminished, and was extinct by 2008. As many of the Republican Never Trump folks make clear, their party has become unrecognizable to them. Previous conservative standards like balanced budgets, rule of law, and personal virtue have become irrelevant there. It has shifted from a positive-sum game to a zero- or negative-sum game of pure political dominance.

As much as I enjoyed my youthful obliviousness and above-it-all sense of superiority, those are dead. The post-war political infrastructure has broken down, and restoring it is the work of decades. However much we want to ignore politics, it has stopped ignoring us.


To put this into perspective, these algorithms, especially for autocomplete, have always been fiddled with by humans. Why? Because algorithms often produce terrible results, and few engineers want to stand behind an algorithm that coughs up bestiality results for vanilla queries about animals.


Terrible?

The autocomplete results were too honest. Sexual terms are more popular and that bestiality result has been proven to be the more popular site.


Popular is not what you want in a search engine. Precise interpretation of your query and retrieving relevant results is. Sometimes that's the most popular; sometimes it is an obscure journal article discussing exactly what you were after. In neither case should a vanilla animal query return bestiality.

I'd argue that an algorithm which is only able to do a search for 'most common query starting with" ignoring all context is a terrible algorithm.


Why would an obscure link come up first for a simple word? Perhaps you are logged in and it relates to your profile but for generic searches it shouldn't but if it did the link would quickly lose the obscure label anyhow.

Maybe the vanilla term isn't so vanilla if those terms are being used that way on the most popular sites.


What's inaccurate about the headline?

> the existing algorithm was inappropriately prioritising prejudiced results, and discussed tweaking the algorithm accordingly

This, to me, is perfectly described by the headline. The only difference is that you're applying the value judgments to the results by calling them inappropriate and prejudiced (which is fine). But if Google employees feel that results that support the travel ban are inappropriate or prejudiced, well then, yeah, they were discussing tweaking the algorithm to counter the travel ban. And it seems they were well aware they were doing this, and that it was fraught with peril, and decided against it, which I applaud them for. I don't see how you can describe the headline as absurdly inaccurate though, it's completely accurate.


> Now, is it worth discussing the enormous power Google has over people's perceptions as a result of their market dominance? Absolutely.

There was a TED talk covering this titled "We're building a dystopia just to make people click on ads"[1].

It talks about how the same ad serving infrastructure that can segment populations into whether they are likely to buy X, can also segment people by political affiliation. Then you can simply target them and remind them to vote on election day (and it actually works and statistically affects voter turnout/results).

It is kind of crazy to think that the next election might be won by whoever can make a deal with Google/Facebook to target the precise swing voters they need. Facebook/google might even do the kingmaking themselves if they can figure out how to do it without backlash/leaks.

[1] https://youtu.be/iFTWM7HV2UI?t=820


Great idea.

On election day run get out and vote adwords ads for terms that target favourable voting blocks


Did you miss the part where that’s exactly what they did last election? (see leaked memo from Eliana Murillo)

Or did the sarcasm fly right over my head?


Sarcasm seems to be lost these days.


So many people seem to have this weird misconception that there can be no right answer to something just because one political party disagrees with another on it. I wish people would entertain the possibility that either side might actually just be wrong about things sometimes (often trivially). (hypothetically) It would not be "bias" to talk about one side being wrong much more than the other if that was actually the case.

I think a lot of people use this fallacious call to "give both sides an un-'biased' chance" to derail discussion in a very intellectually dishonest way when we should be reasoning about things without turning them into political arguments.


There are some subjects where this is correct and one side is definitely correct while the other isn't, global warming being the first subject that comes to mind. Global warming is real, there is scientific evidence of this, and anyone who doesn't believe in it is ignorant of this evidence.

However, there are many subjects where there is no single correct way to do things. How do we manage our culture? How does our society handle immigration properly? Should we promote certain ideals or family values? For these issues, if you _don't_ give both sides an un-biased chance, then you are picking sides.


Your motte and bailey arguments on global warming are not the way to approach this. Global warming is not the phrase used in nomenclature anymore, it is climate change because the worry is that humans are throwing the climate out of stability. However, where true disagreement occurs from those arguing against climate change is the level of impact humans have on the climate. The various models have to make a determination on the feedback loop of carbon dioxide into the overall earth system; it varies from model to model. This leads to the issue which an honest debate can be had: If anthropogenic climate change is occurring that will cause real damage to the planet, what is the range to adjust to and what should be done about it? If you believe strongly that the damage is occurring, would you be willing to wage war on countries who disregard the globe's needs and bring them to heel for their non compliance? China is throwing out massive amounts of air pollutants, getting them to compliance means shutting down the electrical means of them bringing themselves out of poverty.


The end result still remains: introducing bias.


Google is nothing but a collection of biases. Even in the early days, PageRank meant that Google was biased towards sites that get linked to more than others. That was a value judgement they made about what best served their customers. This is no different.


This is a dangerous general-purpose justification which allows mega-corporations to manipulate global information flow in any way they like.

Now Google leadership doesn't just get to be wealthy, they get to manipulate how everyone else sees the world, with no limits or accountability, because hey everything is biased right?

It may sound good because they agree with you on this particular issue.

But this justification applies to any other government or corporation who can manage to seize the reins of technological power. You're making a memetic weapon that, soon, will be turned against you.

No. Neutrality is a real thing and it should be upheld as a serious goal and principle. Especially when we're taking about a group with such insane amounts of unjustified and undemocratic control over other people. We need to do everything we can culturally to make that influence less unequal.


You’re not wrong, but at the same time what’s the solution that isn’t just a matter of the people complaining manipulating global information flow in the way they like? Most of the time behind the flashlight-under-the-chin tales of potential doom, the solution seems to be a shift to whichever political pole the speaker prefers. I’d like a less restricted flow of information, but I don’t know how to get it, and no one seems to be offering good ideas. The best I can offer is that it’s important to fight for freedom to access any source, so you can compare and contrast and draw your own conclusions. Google can dominate convenience, it they don’t actually stop you from checking other search engines. A media outlet can have a major bias, but in a free country that doesn’t censor non-state media you can pick up other sources for comparison.

It’s messy, it’s work, but what are the alternatives that respects the 1st amendment? Just hand-waving some claims about “de facto monopolies” is a non-starter imo. How do we improve the situation without pretending that a given social medial or advertise company has to be regulated to death, and in a way that doesn’t just amount to, “Keep it biased, but it needs to be my preferred bias.”


I think this is a weird view of how bias works. statistical models are imperfect models and are always going to have lots of bias or variance. We typically want to bias models using domain expertise or other external factors.

This is like being mad at a company for using L1 regularization


These are different uses of the word "bias". In the statistical sense there is an objectively true right answer and "bias" refers to the difference between a model's average answer and the average true answer. It has little to do with the lay use of the word to mean the application of an inappropriate subjective value judgement in a situation with no one true answer (unless you take an extremely anthropomorphic view of statistical formulas).


The difference is how much practical diversity we'll have in models. With enough effective choice, the severity of biased models goes down, at least somewhat. Models biased in different directions can provide a variety of perspectives.


>Now Google leadership doesn't just get to be wealthy, they get to manipulate how everyone else sees the world, with no limits or accountability, because hey everything is biased right?

I'd argue the same thing about political parties that directly benefit from less educated citizens, defunding education. Or, political parties that directly benefit from less minorities voting, passing voter restriction laws.

Considering that the same party participating in both of the above is precisely the same party arguing for... Well I'm not sure exactly what, some kind of "fair time" thing for Google and Facebook? When we can't even get that for our talk radio shows anymore? Forget about it.

If we go capitalist free market, we go full fucking capitalist free market. If conservatives are worried Google is biased against them, they should make a conservative Google.


> I'd argue the same thing about political parties that directly benefit from less educated citizens, defunding education.

Where does that come from? America does not have a problem funding education. It loves to invest in education. It's the return on investment that seems to be missing.


>Under SALT, income that paid for public schools went untaxed at the federal level. Current law allows states that raise taxes to better fund public schools to receive a deduction through SALT. The Senate bill ends that ability. As states struggle to lessen the impact of the tax bill on citizens, there will be an outsized amount of pressure on the taxes that typically help public schools.

https://thinkprogress.org/taxes-schools-public-private-d89e5...

> The administration’s new “America First” budget, released Thursday, follows through on this promise by slashing funds for the Education Department by 13.5 percent, or $9.2 billion.

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/03/trumps...

Education funding at local levels can be pathetically bad. So sure, someone can look at the doe and say "that's a bloated budget!" But the local politicians sure aren't helping. Why do teachers have to buy notebooks for their kids out of their own pocket? Why do so many teachers scrape by with 30, 40k/year salaries in places where that's definitely not affordable? These problems are real and they are happening in this country. Time just did a great piece on it, I highly recommend it.


Right. We collect plenty of taxes (and private spending and donations besides) for good education. Some of the highest funding levels in the world. But we're not spending it on education or teacher salaries. The problem is elsewhere. At all levels.


I never mentioned taxes, I said education is underfunded, and it's mostly the fault of local politicians, and it's typically republicans that contribute to this issue.

Really, I recommend the times peice. A good fix would be to stop tying school funding to property values.


> Google is nothing but a collection of biases.

That's not the problem, we know it, they know it, everyone knows. What is upsetting people is the pretense of them being unbiased. Now in this case they just discussed and it seems never implemented these measures.

Come to think of it maybe they should have implemented those measures. Maybe they should stop pretending to be unbiased and embrace the bias. It's not like anyone would be surprised by it. People were shocked about that leaked meeting video where Google executive were crying after the election results and referred to the loss as "we lost". But it shouldn't have been that surprising, it was exactly what I expected would be in the video.

> This is no different.

They took a political issue wanted to insert themselves in the middle of it by manipulating what facts people see regarding that topic. Now most here agree here with their position, so this doesn't bother us too much. But I don't really this as "the same as PageRank".


And in those early days, everyone knew that "citation clubs" were a way to attack Google's algorithm... just like how you attack academic citation indices or "impact factor". Then google defended against that, and then...


It only became a problem after the rise of unwanted political opinions.


It became a problem almost immediately. PageRank had issues because people got wise and formed link farms to cheat the system. So Google added more tweaks. Repeat this x10000 and you get to 2018.


The diversity of quality results has gone down. Page 2 use to have a few gems. Now one or two words will dominate and you see the same results for different queries that share two terms at the beginning.


Google's job is to return the result that the user is looking for. Certainly not results that come from manipulating the algorithm.

I'm guessing that users searching for "Mexico" are not overwhelmingly interested in diatribes of racial inferiority. An algorithm that heavily returns such results is obviously broken.


What about girlsinmexico? It's the most popular site related to Mexico. Should it come up first?

Google's job is in no way to provide you with the results you are looking for. If showing you sites you are not interested in, keeps you engaged longer/sells more ads they will.


Yes. And I'm surprised by Google's insistence that they did not change their algorithm even though there appeared to be some algorithmic bias effect against Muslims and Latinos.

Wouldn't Google want to study that possible source of bias and fix it, or if not, explain it to the public or to the Googlers who saw it in the first place?


There have been a number of complaints that Google has racially/sexually inappropriate results (i. e. people have reported that searching for "Jews" returns anti-Semitic results), so this could be seen as a way to balance the scales rather than introducing further bias.

Source: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/found-out-about-jew/


I guess just sort results alphabetically then? Or what's your idea?


I’m sure they also are “biased” in de-prioritizing content from fringe conspiracy theory sites too, is tha a problem as well?


>So, employees saw that the existing algorithm was inappropriately prioritising prejudiced results, and discussed tweaking the algorithm accordingly. I don't see what's controversial about that, unless your understanding of Google is so basic that you really think results are calculated by a magic computer program in the sky. It's always been programmed by humans, within various parameters. It isn't objective and it never has been.

sorry, you're straight up wrong here:

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/found-out-about-jew/

> “We find this result offensive, but the objectivity of our ranking function prevents us from making any changes,”

the results were not manually massaged for political reasons in the past. i don't have as much confidence in that remaining the case these days, though.


> I don't see what's controversial about that

Really? You don't see what's controversial about a pro-life employee seeing pro-choice results and deciding to alter the search results? Or what if a republican employee decided to scrub prejudiced anti-republican results and pro-democrat results? What about a chinese employee seeing prejudice "tiannamen square" results and deciding it needed to be removed? You don't like prejudiced results but you are okay with prejudiced google employees creating prejudiced results for you?

> It isn't objective and it never has been.

Actually it was. Google of the 2000s was nothing like what it is today. Google used to be fairly agnostic and served the results honestly when they were desperate to gain market share. Now they are intentionally altering results for a political agenda. That is very dangerous.

But you are right. The headline is incorrect. It should be "Prejudiced Google Workers Discussed Tweaking Search Function..."

Google used to be an honest representation of the internet. Now it's just a prejudiced representation of their prejudiced employees.

> Absolutely. But using a headline like that just plays into conspiracy theory.

Stop it. It isn't a conspiracy theory just because you don't like the truth. We have actual video footage of google leaders and their employees openly talking about manipulating the public. We know they tried to manipulate the 2016 election. They are pretty open about their agenda.

It's one of the reasons why I use duckduckgo. Better search results and less spying and less data collecting.


  > What about a chinese employee seeing prejudice "tiannamen square" results
Facts that you don't agree with are not prejudice.


> Facts that you don't agree with are not prejudice.

Who is disagreeing with facts. It's the interpretation that people disagree with.

"Tiannamen square massacre" vs "Bringing order to tiannamen square"?

I believe all interpretations should be allowed. You believe biased google employees should get to choose.

So you are for biased chinese employees altering google search results then?


Exactly. Imagine the uproar if the first result of “holocaust” was a site saying it is a hoax


That it is incorrect to say that personal bias or subjective interpretation has never played any role whatsoever in search results is a vacuous truth. It's a meaningless tautology. And it's fallacious to use it to excuse for injecting any sort of political ideology into search results.


> inappropriately prioritising prejudiced results

Inappropriate to whom? Google search reflects relevance and to tweak the results would be to replace relevant results with biased ones. In the emails they admit that it would be an act of political activism.


The article is trying to not-so-subtly prop up the conservative meme that google is a leftist empire out to censor conservative voices.


A meme? Did you happen to watch the video of the post election all hands?


Where in the video did they pledge to censor conservative voices?


The concern is not that they're currently doing it at scale, but that they're about to.

It also frankly looks like they're already doing it at scale for Google News specifically, vs general web search results.


They don't have to. The singular monotone reaction from the top echelon is message enough. I'm no fan of Trump or his policies, but neither am I a fan of an environment where it is assumed we all have the same political views. For a company of over 100k employees, an event like that can't be seen as inclusive.


I probably wouldn't feel welcome at Fox News. Can I force them to become more liberal in the name of "diversity of thought"? Or does that meme only work when it's trying to promote people on the right?


Google can do whatever they want as long as they are honest about it. If they want to call themselves “The progressive search engine” then at least they are being upfront about it.


One can think that Google has a right to a viewpoint and also point out that the viewpoint isn't objective.


[flagged]


>one famously by posting a sexist rant that got him fired.

Did you even read what Damore wrote? It is neither sexist nor a rant.


It certainly wasn't scientific, so it's hard to argue it was some sort of decrying of the fall of rationality. He had a singular reason to write it, I argue a sexist one.

Seeing as he didn't have science to back up his claims.


This is just another mischaracterization.

>He had a singular reason to write it, I argue a sexist one.

He specifically stated his objective was to help Google with its own diversity and gender equality goals.

>Seeing as he didn't have science to back up his claims.

https://quillette.com/2017/08/07/google-memo-four-scientists...

I find it increasingly fascinating that in the response to Damore's memo people continually provide evidence that this echo chamber does indeed exist, and that people actually are reading different things from the same text.


>CEOs can have political opinions.

Can they? As I recall, many were arguing the exact opposite when Brendan Eich decided to voice some political opinions during the 2014 elections.

Or is it just that CEOs can have political opinions only when they happen to agree with yours?


Wait, do you mean when he supported banning gay marriage? Outside of that, I'm not aware of any controversies around him.

Arguing some humans should have less rights than others is imo not a political opinion.


It's not? Where do you think rights come from? The question of who has rights to do what is the central question of politics. Pretending that questions of rights are not questions of politics is a sleight-of-hand move that is designed to put your opponents on the defensive and reverse the burden of proof.


I've heard this argument before, but I disagree.

Politics is the debate of honest ideas and philosophies regarding governing. Arguing whether a given right should be granted to certain groups of people based on race, sex, creed, or sexual orientation is not about governing.


> Arguing whether a given right should be granted to certain groups of people based on race, sex, creed or sexual orientation is not about governing

It's not? What is it then? Where do you think rights come from? Rights only exist insofar as government guarantees those rights. I only have the right to life because the are police and armed forces who guarantee that right to me. I only have the right to liberty because the Constitution, via the fourth, fifth, eighth and fourteenth amendments, restricts what the government can do to me.

The question of who does or does not get rights, and how those rights are adjudicated when they conflict is an inherently political question. It is the root of a philosophical debate that goes back to Ancient Greece. To claim it is not political is to remove the all questions of ethics from politics. It is to reduce politics to a mere math problem, solvable by technocrats.


>I only have the right to life because there are police and armed forces

You have the right to life because you are alive.

Throughout history, farmers haven't really fucked with each other.


> You have the right to life because you're alive

If I'm stuck on a deserted island, dying of thirst, will my right to life grant me a rainstorm? If I'm stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, dying of hypothermia, is my right to life going to magically conjure a fire? If a warlord invades my village, and puts a sword at my throat, will my right to life stay his hand? Every right is an obligation insofar as there has to be an enforcement mechanism to guarantee that right. That enforcement mechanism is government, governments are controlled by politics, and thus the question of who has which rights is inherently political.

> Throughout history, farmers haven't really fucked with each other

The actual history of the world begs to differ. The inception of agriculture is contemporaneous with the inception of large scale wars for a reason. Hunter gatherer bands may fight, but their fights are usually small scale, both because the bands themselves are small (not very many resources to fight with) and because they have the option of moving (nothing worth fighting for). Farming communities, with their higher population densities, both have the resources to fight larger scale battles, and reason to fight.


You don’t understand. CEOs are allowed to have political opinions as long as they are the right political opinions.

Everything else is hate and shouldn’t be allowed.


Saying gay people shouldn't get married isn't a political opinion, it is you said it first, just hating arbitrarily a randomly assigned group of people.

Are you suggesting it's the same ballpark as saying "I don't like the current elected official?"


And people wonder why politics is so divisive now. It’s not longer about disagreeing with someone, it’s about painting them as immoral and not worth engaging.

Have concerns about immigration levels? You hate immigrants and that’s wrong.

Worried about crime? You hate minorities and that’s wrong.

Worried about government spending on welfare? You hate the poor and that’s wrong.


Where in the video did they do anything wrong?


This article shows that a company which claimed "we lost" in a post election meeting has actively discussed censoring search results related to conservative policies - no subtly required, just facts.


It's bad enough to foster an echo chamber to your personal biases, as is currently standard operating procedure. But to actively engage in hidden manipulation of public views strikes at the very heart of democracy. Democracy only works because of the wisdom of crowds [1], and the wisdom of crowds only works if each participant has independent knowledge. The more people rely upon a shared source of knowledge and truth, the less accurate their collective wisdom becomes.

Practically, this means that anyone with wide enough influence can directly affect democratic outcomes, which defeats the entire purpose, and the level of influence possible these days is unprecedented.

So regardless of what actually did or did not happen, the fact that a few companies ARE in a position to wield this kind of influential power should strike fear into the heart of every free citizen of every democratic nation.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Wisdom-Crowds-James-Surowiecki/dp/038...


In this case what did or did not happen was that some employees noticed that search results for "Muslim" and "Latino" were almost exclusively anti-Muslim and anti-Latino. Since the typical person searching for those terms is obviously interested in a broader view, the algorithm was flawed or even gamed. The article title is click-baity.

But I agree it is terrifying that there are companies devoted to an overt political stance that have vast reach and even monopolies in many markets like Sinclair [0] and others [1]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_stations_owned_or_oper... [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fox_Networks_Group#Internation...


> Since the typical person searching for those terms is obviously interested in a broader view

I don't find it obvious at all. Do you have any evidence to suggest that this is indeed the case? Why would those terms/results show up in the first place if only few are looking them up?


Google's algorithm is biased toward recency. In a universe of "Foo Badbar", "Foo Neutralbar" and "Foo Goodbar" -- If a person searches for "Foo" after there's a bunch of stories in the press about "Foo Badbar", the results will all reflect that topic. For something like "Latino", it's crazy for all the results to reflect the border wall and not at all controversial for Google to want to promote "Foo Neutralbar" and "Foo Goodbar" to balance the results.


It is almost trivially obvious that the average person, even in a polarized climate like America during the 2016 election cycle, is more likely to be interested in a reasonably balanced set of results on any given topic than they are to be interested in a set of results that exclusively favor one fairly extreme position.

(Unfortunately, I would say this is even likely to be true of topics for which there is, in fact, an objectively true answer, like climate change, which many of the results will be opposing.)


>>Since the typical person searching for those terms is obviously interested in a broader view

>Do you have any evidence to suggest that this is indeed the case?

Only my apparently overly optimistic understanding of human nature.


> to actively engage in hidden manipulation of public views strikes at the very heart of democracy.

Indeed, Fox News, Britebart, and friends are terrifying.


Keep in mind that of US journalists 50% ID as (lowrcase) independent, but 28% as Dems and only 7% as Repubs. So there is inherent bias on one side, if looking at affiliation.


You're basically implying that only someone who shares your political views can report fairly about you. Pretty toxic view.

Also, if journalists are reluctant to be identified as Republican, perhaps the Republican party should do some soul searching about why this is so.


Not toxic at all, that is absolutely true in this day and age. The most neutral news I watch is pbs which leans left. I’m not going to find illegal immigrant crimes on CNN for the most part, but I’ll find them all over Fox. I won’t find Trump scandals and hate crimes against minorities on Fox much but I’ll find them super highlighted on CNN.

Assuming there’s no bias is naive.


It looks like you're claiming that Silicon Valley is wrong when they talk about implicit bias, or Dems are wrong when they state that judges nominated to the SCOTUS by Republicans can't execute the law faithfully. Or that a call for more women in the boardroom is unnecessary because that implies that people are biased.

Note that I'm not taking a position on those implications, but am saying according to your logic the above is sound.

Also according to your logic Dems should do soul searching because lumberjacks and truck drivers are mostly Republicans...


You presume the independents are in the center. There are plenty of libertarians and conservatives disgusted by Trump and staying away from the Republican party until they get their act together again.


This poll took place in 2013 when the Repubs were the party of Romney and McCain --two Repubs, who according to quite a few Dem operatives, exemplify what Republicanism should be all about, so that is not a reason.


Let's be honest, all media organizations are biased. Be it Fox News, Britebart, or CNN. Heck even r/politics is biased af.


/r/politics is a subforum on a news aggregator. While media organizations definitely buy upvotes, as of yet there's no actual evidence of Reddit itself artificially promoting/demoting content within a subreddit

(Tweaking the algorithm to get bot-propogated t_d content off the front page doesn't count, it's a different subforum)

Brietbart is an entirely different category than Fox news. It will publish straight up conspiracy theories with no evidence. I'm talking "moon landing didn't happen" level shit. It's an insult to tabloids, to call it a tabloids.

Fox News is so comically biased to compare it to CNN is dishonest. CNN has liberal bias, sure, but it doesnt sink to the level of claiming Hillary Clinton had Seth rich assassinated (https://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2017/may/23...) or completely makes shit up about supreme court candidates whole-cloth (https://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2016/mar/18...).

Sure, they're gonna spend a lot of airtime on the "kavanaugh allegedly raped a girl in high school" story, or when the president says some messed up ish they're gonna go ahead and play that clip again and again, but that is a far cry from outright lying, which fox news does again and again, and which Breitbart does every breath.


Unfortunately this is a false assessment. CNN has been caught plenty of times lying about stories and making up news, many examples on Youtube can bear this out, as well as recent stories they’ve had to retract. I’m no fan of Fox News, but CNN’s hands are not clean, they are in fact one of the worst offenders out there.


CNN doesn't lie at anywhere near the level fox news does. Please take a look at a hard comparison of the times both organizations have been caught lying.

https://www.politifact.com/punditfact/tv/fox/

https://www.politifact.com/punditfact/tv/cnn/


I don't think this is proof that Fox lies more than CNN unless you can prove this is the comprehensive list of all statements made on both networks.

Read about the leftward movement of Politifact here : https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/politifact/

This does not mean Politifact cannot be trusted, but it potentually makes analysis like yours less accurate


Ah, I disagree. You've engaged in blanket ad hominem against politifact without analysing the contents of the two articles themselves.

I believe this is proof that CNN lies less than Fox.

To convince me otherwise, you'd need to put the work in that politifact has done here, and compile your own list of statements, analyzed for truthfulness, from each organization.

My email is in my profile if you ever do this work. I'm happy to be convinced.


>>I don't think this is proof that Fox lies more than CNN unless you can prove this is the comprehensive list of all statements made on both networks.

Wow, so we need to look at each and every statement they have made and analyze their truthfulness before we can conclude which one lies more?

I take it you have never heard of statistics and sampling.


That’s been my experience as well. CNN has really gone downhill in the last decade. I used to be able to get a relatively balanced view, but every time I go on CNN.com all is see is “Trump should be impeached” as every other article. As though there was no other news in the world.


> Brietbart is an entirely different category than Fox news. It will publish straight up conspiracy theories with no evidence. I'm talking "moon landing didn't happen" level shit

Do you have an example? I visit that site extremely rarely. And then only via a link to a story that looks reasonable on it's face.


CNN is exclusively supportive of the Leftist and Liberal agenda. They are absolutely a fair game comparison to Fox.

CNN has spent over a year covering the Russia investigation, breathlessly accepting any shred of hearsay that could possibly maybe implicate Trump in collusion, however it seems now that there has been no collusion whatsoever and the entire issue is fake. CNN has been pushing nonsense this entire time!

In fact I've watched both Fox and CNN my entire life and Fox seems to me much less biased than CNN as of late.


Oh absolutely cnn is biased left.

But its journalists don't lie at nearly the same frequency as fox's

Here's a very simple comparison, persue at your leisure:

https://www.politifact.com/punditfact/tv/fox/

https://www.politifact.com/punditfact/tv/cnn/


Politifact is left biased as well and goes out of its way to discredit right leaning organizations.


>/r/politics is a subforum on a news aggregator.

Agreed, i didn't say otherwise and i didn't group it with other three websites. As an outsider, i have seen tons of people who are non-liberal (either centrist or right wing) get dismissed immediately even though there are times when the argument makes sense. Also, it filled with Russian hacking.

I never compared the three news sites. Parent point first two, i just said it's not like CNN is completely neutral as well. Also remember this is the same channel that didn't want you to download wikileaks and only listen to what they say. Did CNN's political commentator not actually pass questions to Hillary prior to the debate? How is that not biased?

I also completely agree with your points about Fox news and Breitbart and i do agree they are worse than CNN but we aren't on a binary scale. You can't just blame Fox news and Brietbart and completely ignore CNN (which the op did).


I hear you, but I still disagree. I think the depth of the "crime" fox news and Breitbart are engaging in is so great that CNN controversies are meaningless comparatively. To try to "both sides" by lumping CNN in is in my opinion muddying the waters.


Bias is a sliding scale; it’s possible to decide the degree to which a source is biased about a topic, and treat it different from more biased or less biased sources. We definitely don’t want to just throw our hands up and say everything is biased, we can’t trust news, or worse, everything is biased, might as well pick the one that feels comfortable to me.


the difference is the number of deaths they produce.


to say that they are equally as bad is, actually, dishonest.


Try actually watching and reading them, they're not as "terrifying" as you've been trained to think.


Agreed. For me, it's CNN, MSNBC, and HuffPo.


For some reason I just had a sudden idea about democracy being like Monte Carlo localization. We don't need everyone to have the same, or even correct ideas. We need a whole lot of disagreeable perspectives to consider and explore. That way we don't get trapped in ideological local minima.


>It's bad enough to foster an echo chamber to your personal biases, as is currently standard operating procedure. But to actively engage in hidden manipulation of public views strikes at the very heart of democracy. Democracy only works because of the wisdom of crowds [1], and the wisdom of crowds only works if each participant has independent knowledge. The more people rely upon a shared source of knowledge and truth, the less accurate their collective wisdom becomes.

It may have always been that way in the US. From his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin controlled a newspaper and founded secret societies for wealthy business owners to collude together while getting business for his printing press from the government.


> the level of influence possible these days is unprecedented

vs the past when we had the single newspaper, the single encyclopedia, their priest, the three TV networks, or the town gossip mill?

> only works if each participant has independent knowledge

So, can you name a time that this was more possible than it is now?


Now imagine the conversations in newsrooms all over the world on how to present a particular event or newsstory. You can imagine how the different actors behave given their affiliations and editorial freedom (or control, depending) and this is why there is distrust since the ‘60s.


Have you read Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent?”


Manufacturing consent can mean a couple of things. One, where the state apparatus or industry are in cahoots with journalists to execute a conspiracy on information.

The other has to do with journalists following their biases in reporting things --an agenda that is not dictated by outside third parties, but one of following an implicit ideology.


Yeah, caught this on Fox News tonight, and the hypocrisy of their breathless hand-wringing about the "threat to democracy" really burned me up. Not because they're right wing, but because they coordinate a top-down propaganda machine and have spurred other news organizations (like MSNBC) to do the same. The magnitude of their crime and the devastating rifts it has helped widen in our country is so much greater in scope than what the Google employees were talking about doing.


Two things to add:

1) You might be interested in the book The Influential Mind. While she doesn't come out and say it directly, the bizarre state of our digital lives (i.e., social media) has quite a bit of reasonable (scientific) explanation.

https://www.amazon.com/Influential-Mind-Reveals-Change-Other...

2) The irony of the homogenized "wisdom" is that these same entities are personalizing so much that the shared / collective experience is being diminished. Perhaps it's easier to build mono-minded on top of a disheveled and disorganized foundation?


How many employees does Google have?

What precisely are a few emails from employees supposed to show about the company? I mean, seriously WSJ. What if some employees sent around emails saying they approved of cannibalism, would people be like "Google is about to start eating humans!"


Number of employees was 89,058 as of June 30, 2018. This does not include temps, vendors, or contractors.

And in my experience as a current employee, it sure seems so. Just as someone who left years ago can juice attention and their job prospects by writing a Medium.com post or making a YouTube video referencing once working at Google, it's increasingly tedious to see anything done internally, most of which is kind of boring, reported with excitement.

But again, congratulations to whatever dumb leaker wanted to make a point out of some random email this week.

Source: https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1652044/000165204418...


This.

I work at Google, although I have no idea about this particular situation. Pick any major event, internal or external. If you look around company forums (mailing lists, Google+, memes, etc) you will invariably see 10+ people voicing opinions that are dumb if not outright illegal.

It doesn't mean that Google is ever going to _do_ any of those things. It's the result of having 100,000 people who all think they're smart and are never told they can't speak out.

So I would not be at all surprised if a few of the 100,000 employees suggested tweaking search to do X or Y. But I can tell you without even looking that there was not a plan for doing so by anyone with the power to change anything. By the time you get to a design doc, reason tends to prevail.


Imagine there was an email thread on how to dampen search results for Chinese ops in Tibet or Xinjiang because to many staff from China this was offensive, would that just be swept aside? Oh, just a few employees and it never went into production...


Wait, I thought Google will comply with Chinese censorship rules? Isn't that what "Phoenix" was all about?


That’s different. That’s about tailoring results to conform with Chinese authorities in order to operate in China.

My hypothetical example was random employees at the MTV campus emailing ideas to influence US SERPs to propagate their PoV on a political issue they have an interest in.


It's ridiculous how the exact same people going crazy over china's "digital dictatorship" will defend "digital dictatorship" here as long as it aligns with their own biases and agenda. I guess ideals and principles are not important anymore.

What's even more absurd is that people have the gall to defend this behavior on HN.


Depends on which ones. There was that video of the all hands with some of their senior leadership literally crying when Trump got elected. If it includes one of them, either directly or looking the other way, it could be a big deal.


It's not a secret, after the leaks, that the highest levels of Google are very anti-Trump.


I get the impression that this was just chatter on some internal mailing list, not anything that was seriously considered by Google management. Aside from the meta-questions of "Who gave the WSJ these emails and why?" this seems like a non-story.


I remember there was some news at the time about Googlers rallying against the Muslim ban, in part because it directly impacted a couple hundred Googlers:

https://www.recode.net/2017/1/30/14446690/google-rallying-se...

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/williamalden/nearly-200...


Yea I don't find it surprising at all that any company with technical employees was opposed to the Muslim ban, I specifically remember a bunch of high profile cases of engineers stuck after making the "mistake" of visiting home.

H1b and other travel is still a mess. My old recruiter friends back in Texas are just about as conservative as possible but they're still pissed off about all the random executive orders surrounding immigration, it's making their jobs a lot harder.


I was travelling at the time of the ban. Thankfully I wasn't affected by it, but the laptop ban was even more boneheaded. No electronics larger than a cellphone. What does that even mean? Had to go thru another security check right at the gate. Everyone was annoyed, especially the airline staff. Got lucky because I had a check in and I heard about it beforehand. But what if I only had a carry on? My laptop would still be stuck in dubai.


Sounds like a couple employees wanted to add banner links to pro-immigration charities when someone searched for immigration-related terms, similar to donation links they add when a natural disaster hits. This is incredibly far from modifying the search algorithm.

Hard to even say what this means because WSJ is sitting on the actual email chain so they can editorialize it in any way they please.


“Google has never manipulated its search results or modified any of its products to promote a particular political ideology." -- "Our processes and policies would not have allowed for any manipulation of search results to promote political ideologies.”

This is a carefully worded statement, because the fact is, Google does manipulate search results for its business purposes. I expect most companies to follow their corporate ethos and justify change as its expedient for their business. In Google's case, they may even feel a change is a moral imperative, without realizing how subjective that is. I think what people need to recognize is, that Google isn't above these problems, buyer beware.


It's time to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Either internet companies can exert editorial control like this, or they can be free of the consequences of the libel, criminal threats, and intellectual property crimes they are party to. But not both.


Note that they didn't exert any control. It was discussed between colleagues. The email chain contained many warnings not to do this. Ultimately nothing came of it.


The central issue is whether they can exert control They obviously can.


Is that considered conspiracy?


No. Why would it be? At an absolute minimum conspiracy requires some agreement. Which they didn't have here. This also seems to have been an open discussion so there was no secrecy amongst those who did agree.


IANAL, according to Section 1(1) in [1] for UK, the threshold is for two persons to agree to have the law applied to them. It doesn't require all to agree. And from 1(1)(b), it's not necessarily for the conspired act to be carried out under some circumstance.

For U.S. [2], the threshold for conspiracy against the U.S. government is similar or lower. Item (2) "they interfere or obstruct legitimate Government activity" sounds a lot like what the Google employees were doing.

[1] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1977/45/section/1

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_against_the_United_...


Hmmm, a banner with a call to action does not seem out of the question on issues like this, tweaking the results not so much.


Where does one have a guarantee against unbiased internet search results?


I see a lot of coordinated attacks against Google right before the elections.


"Prejudice" and "Hate Speech" are necessarily subject to interpretation. Whoever gets to decide what is and isn't prejudice will necessarily inject their personal biases, political or otherwise, into the decision. Recognition of this during the Enlightenment fueled the political philosophy behind the First Amendment in the American Constitution.

It is a dangerous day when a monopolistic corporation like Google can casually insert their own biases into search results, because they feel they know best.

Is Google a private company, and do private companies have the freedom to do what they want? Generally yes, but in the case of companies like Google that act as the gatekeepers of information to billions of people, the values of free speech AND free thought must supercede the the freedom of private Enterprise.


Maybe it's time to have a politically safe search. I'm not interested in racist results. If I want them I'm pretty sure I'll know how to find them.


Only Google doesn't want to admit that the search results are rigged and/or biased...


Paywalled, does someone have a copy?


Just prepend "outline.com/" to the URL: https://outline.com/https://www.wsj.com/articles/google-work...

(For now. Why does this work, anyway?)



+1 This is so funny "https://outline.com/[url]"

I'm guessing outline.com has a subscription to WSJ, and can therefore share the content?


Ha, no that's not the reason.


Did not know, thanks.


Just click the link from google search results https://www.google.com/search?q=Google+Workers+Discussed+Twe...


Doesn't work for me for some reason (maybe some privacy extension).



WASHINGTON—Days after the Trump administration instituted a controversial travel ban in January 2017, Google employees discussed how they could tweak the company’s search-related functions to show users how to contribute to pro-immigration organizations and contact lawmakers and government agencies, according to internal company emails.

The email traffic, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, shows that employees proposed ways to “leverage” search functions and take steps to counter what they considered to be “islamophobic, algorithmically biased results from search terms ‘Islam’, ‘Muslim’, ’Iran’, etc.” and “prejudiced, algorithmically biased search results from search terms `Mexico’, `Hispanic’, `Latino’, etc.”

The email chain, while sprinkled with cautionary notes about engaging in political activity, suggests employees considered ways to harness the company’s vast influence on the internet in response to the travel ban. Google said none of the ideas discussed were implemented.

"These emails were just a brainstorm of ideas, none of which were ever implemented,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement. “Google has never manipulated its search results or modified any of its products to promote a particular political ideology—not in the current campaign season, not during the 2016 election, and not in the aftermath of President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Our processes and policies would not have allowed for any manipulation of search results to promote political ideologies.”

Next week Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to meet with state attorneys general to discuss concerns of anticonservative bias. Conservatives recently expressed anger after Breitbart News released a video of a 2016 company meeting in which Google senior managers lamented Mr. Trump’s election victory.


I gotta say I am a bit shocked that it's apparently no big deal at Google to a) use company email for non-work topics and b) openly discuss one's political views. In my experience either would be a one way ticket to HR for some "retraining".

Things are way too polarized in the US right now to discuss politics at work. It's not just right vs left, it's also maybe you aren't right/left enough for your boss/peers.


Every company I’ve worked for, big and small, has had an apolitical culture.

Sure, you hear jokes about the President and you know who they voted for, but never somebody using a political argument to drive business decisions.

That’s just weird and you’re asking for an HR nightmare.


Comes with the territory of "bringing your whole self to work".


I've basically adopted the policy that if bikes start to shred I put my headphones in or walk away.


Too bad they weren't able to follow through.


Regardless of whether this is a true story or not, Google needs to be regulated. I firmly believe that now. What’s stoppimg them from tweaking algorithms 2 days before an election? If I search Trump and see 80 women accusing him of sexual assault as the first thing popping up or his $3B net worth and great business deals is a huge difference in results. I know it’s not that simple at all but just making a general point how much power that is.

One counter example, every atttempt at censorship and media bias works oppositely. Look at yahoo article content, tilts quite a bit left and the comments are significantly right wing. Makes them more distrustful of true news.




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