WASHINGTON ― In the final days before Montana’s special House election earlier this year, the digital media vendor for Rob Quist, the Democratic candidate, noticed a crucial problem. The only candidate appearing on Google’s results page for common searches like “Montana special election candidates” was Greg Gianforte, the Republican.
A tech team hired by Daniel Beckmann, the managing director of Quist’s digital vendor IB5k, alerted the campaign that it wasn’t an isolated glitch. It turned out that for almost the entire race, only Gianforte showed up in what Google calls its “Instant Answers” box.
“People looking to just find out who was running — and how else would they find out in this modern day and age ― couldn’t find our guy or the Libertarian [Mark Wicks],” Beckmann told HuffPost. “That’s pretty upsetting.”
Beckmann doesn’t think that Quist lost because of the Google search issue. He does, however, think it’s important for Americans to pay attention to the subtle ways tech giants like Google can affect the democratic process, whether the companies know what they’re doing or not.
“They’re taking over the role of informing the public when they make those decisions, even if machines do it,” Beckmann said. “They need to be responsible for the damage they do.”
Voters relying on Google for political information could easily conclude that an election isn’t contested if only one candidate shows up on searches, which obviously would hurt turnout.
If a Montana newspaper only listed one candidate in its print edition, “that wouldn’t last a minute and they would be held accountable,” Beckmann said.
“We can’t just let this stuff be okay,” he said. “It’s not.”
Beckmann soon found out how difficult it would be to fix the Google problem. He tried to bring the issue to the attention of his Google advertising representative, but was told that there is a strict firewall between the advertising team and the search product team.
The representative told Beckmann in an email that he could not even provide guidance on whom he might contact to resolve the problem. “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help on the ads front,” the representative responded in an email provided to HuffPost.
Google provides a feedback form to file complaints about search results, which Beckmann filled out. The feedback form, though, didn’t even send an automated email noting that the complaint was received.
There was little time before election day and Beckmann needed to resolve the issue quickly. But he was lucky ― having worked on former President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and lived in San Francisco, he had contacts who worked at Google or knew people who did.
After a day of reaching out to more than a dozen people, the Instant Answers box had disappeared from the organic search results page. Clicking to other websites on the page would provide a list of all the candidates
Still, that occurred less than 24 hours until Election Day. Beckmann, meanwhile, never heard back from Google.
“They never said anything else about it ever again,” he said. “And there was no sense of if this happens next time, here’s what we’re going to do about it. There’s just nothing.”
In an email to HuffPost responding to questions about the search issue, a Google spokeswoman said: “We aim to provide people with quick access to helpful and relevant information based on their search query, but in this particular case, did not provide a comprehensive answer so it was quickly removed. We’re always working to improve our processes, and we welcome feedback.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee is set to hear testimony from the general counsels for Google, Facebook and Twitter next Wednesday. The hearing is supposed to dig into the alleged purchase of political advertising on their platforms by Russians during the 2016 election. But the bigger issue of how these companies have placed themselves in charge of the flow of information almost certainly will come up.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Daniel Beckmann’s and Mark Wicks’ names throughout. These have been fixed.