I wrote before that Google’s search algorithm didn’t play politics — facts spoke for themselves, and searcher/voter intent determined the results they found.
That, unfortunately, is no longer the case.
The world’s most popular search engine has announced that a new, experimental feature will give presidential candidates (Republicans and Democrats only) a way to feature their own images, and up to 14,400 characters of their own text, at the top of relevant searches.
Similar to how a search for, say, a celebrity will yield a Knowledge Graph above all other organic results (typically a Wikipedia page), featuring images, biographical information, and related links, the idea is to bring voters directly to the candidates they are searching for with real-time updates.
These Candidate Cards will not be drawn from other popular search results, as the current Knowledge Graphs are; rather, they will be taken from the candidates themselves. That means they will determine independently what the primary search results for their names look and sound like.
It is well documented, researched, and discussed how important social media’s role was in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. By making a public search for facts and resources redundant to social media, Google is compromising the future and development of political engagement online.
The difference between online search and social media was, until now, the difference between campaigns controlling the message and people electing to engage directly, versus the sum of what is being said both by and about candidates, correlated with how the public at large is receiving these many different narratives and messages. Or put differently, Google is bridging the gap between public relations and public scrutiny, and putting PR on top.
Relying on candidates for self-representation is a poor alternative to aggregating reporting, commentary, and the full record of their own comments arranged through Google’s traditional search mechanisms. Of course, traditional search still exists, it just won’t feature above the new Candidate Cards.It is roughly akin to a newspaper giving its front page away to politicians to write whatever they please (alongside whatever photographs they choose), and relegating traditional news to the interior. All the power and significance that
comes with being on the front page is signed away to partisans. The real news isn’t gone, it is just buried.
Candidates are historically -- and in this race particularly -- poor resources for an accurate account of their historical positions or accomplishments. By featuring them above organic search results, Google is lending credibility where none belongs.
A myriad of other channels — from social media to their own campaign websites — already exist to give candidates an unfiltered, direct route to potential voters.
Google might have been a counterweight, a route to find robust skepticism, alternative points of view, and of course comparing claims against reality. And while the immediate aftermath of any major debate is always an avalanche of articles providing more grounded analysis and fact-checking of the many claims and quotations exchanged in the heat of the pageant, Google is giving precedence to the raw, redundant outflow of propaganda generated by the candidates themselves.
In yet another medium, the voices of the leading parties are being hoisted above the voices of everyone else.
By providing this new feature exclusively to the leading party candidates, Google is mirroring the focus on whatever selection of aspirants the television networks deem “legitimate” hopefuls, and marginalizing all the rest. Just as mainstream news prefers to ignore alternative parties, reject rule changes that would let lesser-known candidates feature in debates, and generally behave as though Republicans and Democrats provide sufficient variety to satisfy American voters — now Google will, too.
Google presents its Candidate Cards feature as something that “levels the playing field for candidates to share ideas and positions on issues they may not have had a chance to address during the debate.” This effort might come off as more sincere if it did in fact level the playing field, rather than cementing the dominance of two parties over the spectrum of American political ideas.
Google may not be directly endorsing a single candidate — yet — but it is endorsing the stymied, dysfunctional two-party system that disenfranchises voters, fuels cynicism, and hurts democracy.
The Information Age would seem to be a key component to realizing greater democratic participation: if an educated electorate is central to the success of democracy, then access to information would be a logical next step. Active voters ought to be able to learn about their choices; the de facto gatekeeper of that information can’t reinforce the system that limits those choices by limiting that information.
The structure of Google search results gives weight to certain information; that which provides the most value is supposed to float to the top. If this new kind of formatting is to be filtered through partisan favoritism and become a standard element of Google’s political search results, then the voters have been abandoned by the last truly democratic outlier there was: the Internet.