WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - In an effort to understand how Google search algorithms work, a Democratic congresswoman asked the tech company's chief executive officer a simple question: "If you Google the word 'idiot' under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. How would that happen? How does search work so that would occur?"
In the middle of a congressional hearing ostensibly about privacy and data collection on Tuesday (Dec 11), Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, apparently performed that search from the dais. As it turns out, the image results for "idiot" reveals a page of mostly President Donald Trump's photos.
Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, who was testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, tried to explain to the roomful of mostly tech novices how the algorithms take into account some 200 factors - such as relevance, popularity and how others are using the search term - to determine how to best match a query with results.
"So it's not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we're going to show the user. It's basically a compilation of what users are generating, and trying to sort through that information?" Ms Zofgren asked, facetiously.
She was reacting to Republicans' allegations that Google employees manipulate results for political reasons.
The hearing mostly revealed lawmakers' rudimentary understanding of how the Internet works and provided a platform for them to complain about unfavourable search results.
Republicans on the panel also could not get past the claim that some person or people inside Google could not arbitrarily change search algorithms for political gain.
In one exchange, Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, asked Mr Pichai whether he had ever directed an employee to manipulate search results.
Mr Pichai explained that it was not possible for one person, or even a group of people, to do that because there are so many steps in the process.
But Mr Smith did not accept that explanation, telling Mr Pichai: "Let me just say, I disagree. I think humans can manipulate the process. It is a human process at its base."
Representative Steve Chabot, a Republican from Ohio, complained that when he googled the Republican healthcare Bill or the GOP tax cuts, the first several pages listed negative articles. "How do you explain this apparent bias on Google's part against conservative points of view, against conservative policies? Is it just the algorithm, or is there more happening there?" he asked.
"Congressman, I understand the frustration of seeing negative news, and, you know, I see it on me," Mr Pichai offered.
"What is important here is we use the robust methodology to reflect what is being said about any given topic at any particular time. And we try to do it objectively, using a set of rubrics.
"It is in our interest to make sure we reflect what's happening out there in the best objective manner possible. I can commit to you, and I can assure you we do it without regard to political ideology. Our algorithms have no notion of political sentiment in it."
But Mr Chabot wasn't having it. He told Mr Pichai that conservatives believe Google is "picking winners and losers in political discourse".
"There's a lot of people that think what I'm saying here is happening," he said. "And I think it's happening."