The Political Bias of Algorithms

In a review of the Google and Yahoo news sites in Online Journalism Review, Ethan Zuckerman puts forward a very interesting theory as to why the alternative news sites bubble up to the top of the relevance ranking algorithms at Google News.

“I think what you’re seeing is an odd little linguistic artifact,” said Zuckerman, former vice president of Tripod.com and now a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who studies search engines. The chief culprit, he theorized, is that mainstream news publications refer to the senator on second reference as Kerry, while alternative news sites often use the phrase “John Kerry” multiple times, for effect or derision. To Google News’ eye, that’s a more exact search result.

A second possible factor, Zuckerman said, is that small, alternative news sites have no hesitancy about using “John Kerry” in a headline, while most mainstream news sites eschew first names in headlines. The inadvertent result is that the smaller sites score better results with the search engines.

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