January 12, 2018

This week’s furor online over the alleged left-wing bias of Google’s fact-checking tags missed the point.

On Tuesday, Tucker Carlson’s right-leaning news site The Daily Caller published a story chastising Google for allegedly surfacing fact checks that target conservative outlets in search results. The article draws upon a search for The Daily Caller on Google that includes the technology company’s “Knowledge Panel” feature, which was introduced in November on both mobile and desktop to give users more information about specific publishers, such as major awards and disputed claims.

The Daily Caller took issue with the fact that it receives a “Reviewed Claims” column while sites like The Washington Post and The New York Times have a column for awards. Additionally, it cited a debunk from The Post of a claim Donald Trump made about Robert Mueller’s team investigation team that was erroneously linked to one of its stories (Disclosure: Both Poynter and the International Fact-Checking Network receive funding from Google).

Google reviewed claims
While The New York Times has a section for awards, The Daily Caller receives a Reviewed Claims column in Google search results. (Screenshot from Google)

The story made waves online, getting coverage in sites ranging from Gizmodo to The Federalist, Breitbart and Louder with Crowder. The latter three, whose coverage consisted mainly of partisan allegations against Google (e.g. “Google’s New ‘Fact-Checker’ Is Partisan Garbage”), amassed more than 15,000 shares on social media as of publication, according to BuzzSumo.

Google’s application of the Post fact check to a claim that wasn’t made in The Daily Caller’s story verbatim was a mistake, according to a Google spokesperson who spoke openly about the matter on the condition of anonymity. They also told Poynter that they removed the post in question after The Daily Caller pointed it out — not because of partisanship, but because of ongoing bugs in the algorithm.

Daily Caller
Google's algorithm erroneously linked a Washington Post fact check to a Daily Caller article about Mueller's investigation team. The claim in question was never made in the piece. (Screenshot from Google)

The tech company told Poynter that the algorithm feeding into the Knowledge Panel is derived from the ratio of fact checks to what is covered on a specific news site. Per that explanation, it’s plausible that the algorithm picked up The Post’s fact check because The Daily Caller has repeatedly written about the political affiliation of Mueller’s team, as well as the fact that other fact-checkers had covered the same story.

The article also refers to “Google’s fact-checking,” but the tech company actually draws upon work conducted by independent, nonpartisan fact-checking organizations contributing to the Schema.org ClaimReview markup. There could be a substantive critique of that method — or the claims that fact-checkers choose to cover — but that wasn’t the subject of The Daily Caller's piece.

Additionally, the critique of the Knowledge Panel in part rests upon the presupposition that The Daily Caller is in the same category as mainstream outlets such as The Post and The Times, which don’t have Reviewed Claims sections (but still receive fact check appendages in search), as opposed to Occupy Democrats, which does — and therefore it should receive the same treatment.

Occupy Democrats
Occupy Democrats is one of the left-leaning sites that receive the Reviewed Claims column. (Screenshot from Google)
Sites like The Washington Post have had fact checks linked to their coverage in Google search results in the past, just not in the Knowledge Panels. (Screenshot from Google)

That's a false equivalency, but what remains valid in The Daily Caller’s note is a request for transparency on how decisions are made about which media organizations receive the treatment if there are fact checks published about it. Other hyperpartisan publications that have published unproven or misleading claims also have Reviewed Claims columns, and a serial disinformer like Infowars — no friend of liberals — doesn't.

Poynter ran a search analysis of the outlets that do and don’t receive the Reviewed Claims column. (Note: The lists below are in no way comprehensive).


Publishers with Reviewed Claims

Publishers without Reviewed Claims

Since the Knowledge Panel was launched less than two months ago, Google’s spokesperson said that it’s very much the first iteration of the feature and that the company is still working on fine-tuning it. Theoretically, the more fact-checkers that use the Schema.org markup in the future — including relatively new fact-checking operations at conservative outlets like The Weekly Standard — the more well-rounded Google’s algorithm will be.

In the meantime, let’s lay off the plug-and-chug critiques of Silicon Valley’s partisanship and engage in more meaningful discussions about what Google is — or isn’t — doing to address false or misleading claims in search.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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