As people seek affirmation of their political beliefs in an increasingly polarized nation with accusations of fake news from both sides, smart device AI (artificial intelligence) is more than happy to comply.
Concise, loaded questions tend to yield loaded results when querying Google Assistant, the voice-activated AI technology that comes with Google Pixel phones and Google Home – the latter a voice-activated speaker.
When I asked Google Assistant, “Is Donald Trump a racist?” – an oft-repeated allegation from some on the left and much of the mainstream media – the top result I got was from the left-leaning Huffington Post, “Here Are 16 Examples of Donald Trump Being Racist” -- which gives a laundry list of reasons. The story also discusses Steve Bannon, chief strategist for the President, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
And if your question is rephrased in less-raw, accusatory terms such as, “Is President Trump racially insensitive?” the top results are, again, the Huffington Post story and stories like Vox’s “Trump’s win is a reminder of the incredible, unbeatable power of racism.”
Jump the political divide and former President Barack Obama doesn’t get off that easy either but top results don’t tend to be from large media organizations, which have been accused of being softer on the former president than the current commander-in-chief.
If, for example, you ask a loaded question about President Obama, “Is [former President] Barack Obama a communist?” – an allegation sometimes made on the right – the top result is, “Barack Obama and the Communist Party” from keywiki.org. But that article doesn’t portray Obama in the same stark, unambiguous terms as the top Trump results. And the other top results for the query tend to be less stridently affirming and/or negative.
There could be a few things in play: it could be a function of Trump’s more brazen, outspoken approach to politics. Or the fact that he is now President of the United States and almost always a top trending news topic – with mainstream news organizations looking to outdo each other with negative, attention-grabbing headlines. Or the fact that personal digital assistants tend to just grab the same trending stories you get when you type in a Google query. Or it could be the recondite algorithms that search engines use. Or a combination of the above.
When I moved on to topics that may dog any politician of any political stripe, such as “Is President Trump corrupt?” or “Is [former] President Obama corrupt?” the top results confirm the question’s bias. Top results paint both presidents as irrefutably, hopelessly corrupt.
Pose slightly less loaded queries – posed as statements, as you would type into a Google search box – such as “President Trump scandals” or “President Obama scandals” I got results like “The Many Scandals of Donald Trump: A Cheat Sheet” and "Obama Says He's Had A Scandal-Free Administration. Here Are 11 of His Scandals," respectively.
Ask more thoughtful questions and you get better answers
If you ask questions with more modifiers that seek impartial answers, you tend to get results that are more balanced, less partisan. For example, if I ask Google Assistant, “Is calling Trump a racist fair?” I got results that gave both sides, i.e., some results supported the allegation that Trump is racist while others opposed that argument. Ask similarly-phrased queries about whether Obama is a communist and I got more balanced results.
And Google Assistant isn’t the only popular smart-device AI to reinforce loaded queries. Apple’s Siri spits out similar results regarding both Presidents Trump and Obama. Though when I asked Siri about Obama being a communist, Siri refused to give a clear answer as the top result. And Siri seems to like queries posed as you would type them into a search box on Google, such as “President Obama controversies” or "President Trump controversies." You tend to get more results that way.
The moral of the story is that smart-device AI like Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri often reflect the slant of trending stories on major media sites with lots of readers. And many of those major media sites tend to take a dim view of President Trump.
I asked both Google and Apple for comment on this story but did not get a response.