In a House Judiciary Committee hearing today, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was asked to explain why a Google image search for “idiot” turned up pictures of Donald Trump — and whether that was a case of intentional bias.
The question came from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who was trying to refute the idea that Google is politically manipulating search results. “Right now, if you google the word ‘idiot’ under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. I just did that,” she said. “How would that happen?”
Pichai offered a long, general explanation of how Google search works:
Any time you type in a keyword, as Google we have gone out and crawled and stored copies of billions of [websites’] 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. 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.
“So it’s not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we’re going to show the user?” Lofgren asked sarcastically.
“This is working at scale, and we don’t manually intervene on any particular search result,” replied Pichai.
News outlets reported on the Trump “idiot” results earlier this year. If you search the term now, in fact, you’ll mostly get pictures from stories explaining why it happened. It appeared to be the result of outside parties gaming Google’s search results, a well-known tactic known as “Google bombing.”
Trump isn’t the first president to get Google-bombed: in the mid-2000s, searches for “miserable failure” famously returned results about President George W. Bush. It can be a politicized (or just funny) extension of normal search engine optimization tactics. In this case, it’s convincing Google that a Trump picture is what most people want when they search for “idiot,” by upvoting or linking to posts with that combination of words and images.
Lofgren’s question came after a long, factually sketchy grilling from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who claimed to have “irrefutable” evidence of Google suppressing conservative search results. That included an actual research project from Google critic Robert Epstein, author of a controversial study about whether Google results are politically slanted. But he also repeatedly cited a blog post from conservative site PJ Media, which the writer explicitly described as “not scientific.” (It’s also the post that got President Donald Trump tweeting about Google’s “rigged” search results.)
Pichai’s answer probably won’t really alter the debate over whether Google is biased, but it officially puts an internet stunt into the congressional record.