Tech giant Google is allegedly manipulating its online search results to bury terms that could be damaging to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, according to an analysis conducted by SourceFed, a news website with a prominent YouTube channel.
"SourceFed has discovered that Google has been actively altering search recommendations in favor of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, so quietly that we were unable to see it for what it was until today," SourceFed’s Matt Lieberman said in a new video posted online Thursday.
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Lieberman explained how, for example, if someone types "Hillary Clinton cri" into Google, the site’s auto-complete function, which provides the user search term suggestions while typing into the search bar, shows three potential searches: "Hillary Clinton crime reform," "Hillary Clinton crisis," and "Hillary Clinton crime bill 1994." But when someone types "Hillary Clinton cri" into Yahoo’s search engine, the first search suggestion to appear is "Hillary Clinton criminal charges," followed by "Hillary Clinton crimes" and "Hillary Clinton criminal."
"There’s clearly something wrong here, right?" Lieberman asked. "It’s like if you put three people into a room that’s on fire and two out of three people yell ‘fire’ and the third person yells, ‘I’m in a room.’"
The SourceFed analysis shows that this mismatch in search terms is intentional rather than the result of people searching different terms on different websites.
Lieberman explained that when SourceFed searched in Google Trends for "Hillary Clinton crime reform," the site’s top search suggestion for the aforementioned example, there were not enough searches of the term to even build a graph on the site. However, when SourceFed searched "Hillary Clinton crimes," Google gave back a full graph, indicating that far more people are searching for the latter term rather than the former.
"Which begs the question, why on earth is [Hillary Clinton crime reform] the first potential result?" Lieberman asked. "Google just doesn’t want you to know or ask."
To gather more data, SourceFed wanted to see if Clinton’s much-discussed private email server that she used as secretary of state would yield similar results.
They discovered that when someone types "Hillary Clinton ind" into Bing or Yahoo, the first search suggestion is "Hillary Clinton indictment," followed by a series of indictment-related search terms. When the same text is typed into Google, though, the first two recommended terms are "Hillary Clinton Indiana" and "Hillary Clinton India."
"Could people really be searching more for ‘Hillary Clinton India’ than ‘Hillary Clinton indictment?’" Lieberman asked.
When he typed the two terms into Google Trends, it showed that people have been searching for "Hillary Clinton indictment" eight times more often than "Hillary Clinton India."
"The intention is clear: Google is burying potential searches for terms that could have hurt Hillary Clinton in the primary elections over the past several months by manipulating recommendations on their site," Lieberman said.
For comparison, SourceFed searched for negative terms associated with Clinton’s primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. When they typed in "Bernie Sanders soc" for socialist and "Donald Trump rac" for racist, Google matched the recommendations for Bing and Yahoo.
"At this stage, I must be clear: We at SourceFed are not accusing any individuals of any crimes," Lieberman said, adding that if Google did manipulate search results it would be "unethical and wrong but not illegal."
He added that there is no evidence of Hillary Clinton’s campaign having involvement with this issue, but noted there are a "stunning" number of links between Google and the Clinton campaign, most of which stem from Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., and former chief executive officer of Google.
Lieberman also noted that Schmidt is a major funder of The Groundwork, which is, according to Democratic campaign operatives, "an investment by Schmidt to ensure that Hillary Clinton has the technological and engineering prowess to win the election."
The Groundwork is one of the Clinton campaign’s most expensive outside contractors, costing $177,000 in the second quarter of 2015 alone.
Lieberman said the connection between Google, Schmidt, and Clinton is clear, adding that the Clinton campaign’s chief technology officer, Stephanie Hannon, is a former Google executive.
Lieberman also explained that, despite voters having access to an innumerable number of sources of information, manipulating Google searches can have a profound effect on voters’ decisions.
SourceFed cited the work of Dr. Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute of Behavioral Research, whose most recent experiments focused on changing political opinion through search engine results. In his study, according to Lieberman, Epstein held a mock election and allowed the mock voters to search for various terms regarding the two candidates. Epstein showed mostly positive results for both Candidate A and Candidate B, while having a control group that received mixed, untouched results.
"What he found was that he was able to swing voters up to 48 percent for whatever side had more positive results, a process he dubbed ‘voter manipulation power,’" Lieberman said.
Epstein was quoted after the experiment as saying, "Google could determine the outcome of upwards of 25 percent of all national elections."
Lieberman noted that the Hillary Clinton campaign has made no comment about the topic of search manipulation.