This week, we found out something that was supposed to be a secret. We were not supposed to know that Google employees manually interfered with search terms to promote some videos on Youtube, and hide others, in the week leading up to last year’s abortion referendum. This was a decision taken internally, and hidden from the public, during the period when most undecided voters do their research and make up their minds.
What Google did was simple: It first selected what it thought the most popular search terms for the abortion referendum would be in the last week of the campaign. It would have chosen these terms based on what people had been searching previously – notable searches included “unborn life” and “abortion demonstration”. It then handpicked what its employees believed to be the most relevant and impartial videos, and pushed those to the top of the search results, demoting the original, more popular, videos to much lower down the search results.
In theory, this is not a terrible idea. For example, if you are going to buy a new car, and you search for that car on Youtube, you might want to see an independent review of that car, rather than the advertising video made by the car company.
Indeed, this is what Google says it was doing. A company spokeswoman told The Irish Catholic that “We’ve been very public that for a wide range of news and information queries, we have algorithms that are designed to surface authoritative content of all political viewpoints. This helps prevent spam and conspiracy theories from surfacing prominently on our site. In the midst of the Irish referendum on abortion, our systems brought authoritative content to the top of our search results for abortion-related queries.
“This happened for both pro-choice and pro-life queries, there was no distinction.”
We simply do not know which videos were promoted, and which were pushed down the order, or what impact that had on voter choices”
So what’s the problem? Well the first thing to note is that the first four words uttered by Google here are not true. They have not been very public about it, at all. Indeed, we were not supposed to find out about this decision in the abortion referendum, and only did find out because somebody leaked it to an American investigative website. People who searched during the abortion referendum did not know that they were looking not at the most relevant or popular results, but results hand-picked for them by nameless Google employees in Dublin.
Second, who decides what’s “authoritative”, what is “spam”, and what is a “conspiracy theory”? Voters are expected to take it on trust that a Google employee, often a young and inexperienced employee, knows better than they do which videos are truthful and which are dishonest.
This is a vast power to grant to a private company, and it fails a simple test. Would pro-choice voters trust the Catholic Bishops to choose the most “authoritative” content on abortion for voters to see? If not, why should the rest of us trust a very liberal American company to do it?
We simply do not know which videos were promoted, and which were pushed down the order, or what impact that had on voter choices. The result of the referendum was lopsided, so it is almost impossible to imagine that this decision by Google was single-handedly responsible for it.
Almost certainly, the result would have been what it was anyway. However, the fact that the decision was made a week before the referendum, at around the same time that Google decided to ban all referendum advertising, disproportionately hurting the pro-life side, puts it in a more sinister context.
At the time this decision was made, a number of newspapers were waging a campaign to get Google to shut down so-called “misleading” ads and content on its platforms. Pro-Choice groups were overtly saying that if the referendum was lost, Google would bear responsibility for it. The pressure was being put on heavily to ensure that there was a re-balancing of online content in favour of the ‘yes’ side of the campaign. Are we then expected to believe that this decision was made in an attempt to be entirely fair to both sides?
The timing of this decision, and the fact that Google did not make it public, deepens the impression that it was intended to change what voters would see in the last week of the campaign”
If we look at the search terms that were manipulated, several stand out. Someone who searches for “abortion is wrong”, for example, is presumably looking for a solid argument for voting ‘no’ in the referendum. But if this is replaced, as it may have been, by a video saying “is abortion wrong?” and purporting to offer arguments for both sides, that voter may end up as confused as they were before they searched.
We do not know for certain that this specific example happened, but it would certainly fit with the intent of what Google says it was trying to do.
I should declare an interest here – as the communications director for Save the 8th, I was obviously biased at the time, and still am, towards the Pro-life argument, which I believe in with all my heart. I said at the time that I believed that the actions of Google amounted to interference in the referendum, and this news only furthers my view that this is true.
The timing of this decision, and the fact that Google did not make it public, deepens the impression that it was intended to change what voters would see in the last week of the campaign. It is highly likely that videos made by campaign groups were demoted, for not being “impartial”.
All of this will go largely unremarked upon by an Irish establishment that is happy that it got the right result, as it sees it, in the referendum. Google will be happy that it is not being blamed for a pro-life vote. Voters, however, were treated like fools, who couldn’t be trusted with the wrong information. And we should all be very angry about that.
John McGuirk is a political commentator and was a spokesperson for the Save the 8th Campaign.