Embracing a new conspiracy theory, Trump escalates fight with Google

Attendees stand during a news conference at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
Attendees stand during a news conference at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Yesterday afternoon, Donald Trump promoted a new video, apparently created by the White House, that the president saw as proof of political bias at Google. The video showed the Google homepage promoting Barack Obama's State of the Union addresses, but not Trump's.

The president's allies were impressed. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) pointed to Trump's video, telling the public, "When they try to silence our views we must speak louder." Like Trump, the GOP leader included the #StopTheBias hashtag in his tweet.

The truth, as Google soon after explained, was far less dramatic. Google's homepage didn't promote Trump's first speech to Congress last year, since it technically wasn't a State of the Union address. The tech giant similarly didn't promote Obama's 2009 speech to Congress, either. This year, however, the Google homepage did promote Trump's State of the Union address, treating it the same as Obama's addresses.

In other words, Trump's proof was wrong and easily debunked. And yet, the president is nevertheless convinced there's a tech conspiracy working against him. Consider Trump's remarks at an unrelated White House event yesterday:

"Well, I think that Google and Facebook and Twitter, I think they treat conservatives and Republicans very unfairly. I could tell you that I have personal experience; I have a lot of people on the various platforms.... And all of the sudden, you lose people. And you say, 'Where did they go?' They've taken off."Now I don't know if it happens to the other side, but I can say that, with respect to Google and Twitter and Facebook, there is a big difference. And, in fact, I hear that they're holding hearings in Congress over the next couple of weeks. And I think it's a very serious problem, because they're really trying to silence a very large part of this country. And those people don't want to be silenced. It's not right. It's not fair. It may not be legal. But we'll see."

Asked about possible government regulation, the president said he wants "fairness," not "regulation," though he didn't rule out the latter. This came two days after another leading White House official said the administration is "taking a look" at possible government regulation.

The same morning, Trump accused Google News of offering "rigged" results when people search for his name. As proof, the president noted that Google News presents users with coverage from major independent news organizations, rather than "Republican/Conservative" websites.

Apparently unaware of how ridiculous this made him sound, Trump called the Google News results "very dangerous" and possibly "illegal."

We should apparently expect a lot more of this. Axios quoted a Trump operative this morning saying, "It's risen to the level of being an emotional or gut issue with conservatives, like guns/immigration. It's an issue that's here to stay."

The trouble with "gut" issues, however, is that they too often spiral without evidence or reason. In reality, if Trump loses social-media followers, it's not because companies like Facebook and Twitter are trying to silence him. In reality, there's no evidence of conservative content being censored. In reality, it's not "illegal" for Google News to provide the public with links to the news.

I can appreciate why this checks a lot of boxes for Trump and his followers. It combines conspiracy theories, self-pity, an overwhelming instinct to see conservatives as victims, and a chance to pick a fight with some blue-state tech companies whose executives tend to be left-of-center.

They've even had some success, not only persuading rank-and-file conservatives that there's pervasive bias, but in working the refs: Facebook brought on a far-right former senator to help advise the company.

But for the American mainstream, all of this should be a little unsettling. A conspiracy-minded president and his political party should not pressure companies to accommodate "gut" claims for which there is no evidence, and White House hints about possible regulation of the industry smacks of authoritarianism.