Google Staffers Said to Have Discussed Manipulating Search Results to Counter Trump’s Travel Ban

September 23, 2018 Updated: September 23, 2018

Google employees may have acted on their political biases, as indicated by internal emails obtained by The Wall Street Journal that found staff brainstorming and discussing methods to tweak the company’s search-related functions as a counter to President Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban.

Staff discussed modifying results to guide users toward sites on how to contribute to pro-immigration organizations or contact lawmakers and government agencies. The email chains included other suggestions about using the company’s resources to “actively counter” the travel ban.

The new revelations are the latest sign that Google could be suppressing conservative voices while promoting liberal views,
after a leaked video showed the company’s leadership openly mourning Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to staff and discussing how Trump’s election “conflicts with many” of the company’s values. In that case, Google said the executives were expressing their own beliefs and didn’t influence the products.

An email from a staff member in the Search Product Marketing division explained how a “large brainstorm” was taking place in the company’s marketing division.

The emails showed employees discussing methods to “leverage” search functions and take steps to counter what they considered to be “islamophobic, algorithmically biased results from search terms ‘Islam,’ ‘Muslim,’ ‘Iran,’ etc.” and “prejudiced, algorithmically biased search results from search terms ‘Mexico,’ ‘Hispanic,’ ‘Latino,’ etc.”

“Overall idea: Leverage search to highlight important organizations to donate to, current news, etc. to keep people abreast of how they can help, as well as the resources available for immigrations [sic] or people traveling,” the internal email said.

The emails were sent shortly after the Trump administration instituted its January 2017 travel ban that temporarily barred visitors and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries considered “high risk” by the Obama administration. The ban was contested and revised multiple times before the Supreme Court upheld it in June.

In one of the emails reviewed by the Journal, a worker wrote about increasing results for pro-immigration organizations: “I know this would require a full-on sprint to make happen, but I think this is the sort of super-timely and imperative information that we need as we know that this country and Google, would not exist without immigration.”

Google employees also discussed a list of specific ideas already mentioned by individual company officials previously. Some wanted to “actively counter” what they called anti-Islamic and anti-Hispanic Google searches results. An experimental project codenamed Highlights that would provide influential people the ability to post text updates in search results, was also brought forward.

“Can we launch an ephemeral experience that includes Highlights, up-to-date info from the US State Dept, DHS, links to donate to ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], etc?” one email said.

The response from multiple officials to the list was favorable.

“We’re absolutely in. … Anything you need,” one official wrote.

One executive, identified as a public-affairs official, pointed out the biased nature of the proposal: “Very much in favor of Google stepping up, but just have a few questions on this,” including “how partisan we want to be on this.”

“To the extent of my knowledge, we’d be breaching precedent if we only gave Highlights access to organizations that support a certain view of the world in a time of political conflict,” the public-affairs executive said. “Is that accurate? If so, would we be willing to open access to highlights to [organizations] that … actually support the ban?”

A Google spokesperson told The Epoch Times on Sept. 21 that none of the discussed ideas in the email chain were put into practice.

“These emails were just a brainstorm of ideas, none of which were ever implemented,” the spokesperson said via email. “Google has never manipulated its search results or modified any of its products to promote a particular political ideology—not in the current campaign season, not during the 2016 election, and not in the aftermath of President Trump’s executive order on immigration.”

A research expert previously told The Epoch Times that Google uses invisible techniques that can’t be monitored and that leave no paper trail.

Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Android, Chrome and Apps, at a conference during the Mobile World Congress, the world's largest mobile phone trade show in Barcelona, Spain, on March 2, 2015. Google is creating a new company, called Alphabet, to oversee its highly lucrative Internet business and a growing flock of other ventures, including some  like building self-driving cars and researching ways to prolong human life  that are known more for their ambition than for turning an immediate profit. Pichai will become CEO of Google's core business, including its search engine, online advertising operation and YouTube video service. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File)
Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, in photo taken during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on March 2, 2015.  (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

In a staff memo reviewed by the Journal, Google CEO Sundar Pichai acknowledged the recent criticisms of the company by warning staff members in a Sept. 21 memo to keep their political biases out of their work.

“We do not bias our products to favor any political agenda,” Pichai said. “The trust our users place in us is our greatest asset and we must always protect it. If any Googler ever undermines that trust, we will hold them accountable.”

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