Google search makes Trump the world’s top idiot, but is it fair?
- Yonden Lhatoo is both amused and intrigued by Americans’ obsession with the word ‘idiot’ in the context of their 45th president, which is pitting politics against technology
There’s a song that I just can’t get out of my head these days. It’s Green Day’s 2004 hit, American Idiot.
More than it being a great rock anthem that brings back fond memories of misspent youth, it’s because of Americans’ obsession with the word “idiot” in the context of their 45th president.
At the moment, it’s the most searched-for term in the United States, according to Google Trends. And people have looked it up online well over a million times since lawmakers at a congressional hearing this week demanded to know why typing “idiot” into Google’s image search would throw up a gallery of pictures of US President Donald Trump.
Google chief executive Sundar Pichai was in for a grilling by Republicans suggesting it was a liberal conspiracy to ridicule Trump as part of what they perceive to be an anti-conservative bias built into the internet giant’s search engine.
Pichai explained that it was all about algorithms, and matching queries with billions of indexed pages – every time a keyword was typed in, results would be ranked according to hundreds of factors such as “relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it”.
Google got off pretty easy at the hearing, mostly due to its inquisitors’ technological illiteracy, evidenced by questions such as: “So it’s not some little man sitting behind the curtain figuring out what we’re going to show the user?”
With their usual political axes to grind and general cluelessness about the wired world, US lawmakers missed the opportunity to take a major tech boss to task over matters of more consequence, such as how Google keeps tabs on billions of people, and how it uses their data for advertising.
It seems Mark Twain was not far off the mark when he once wrote: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”
To be fair to Trump, it was reported back in July that his face was popping up in Google searches for “idiot” partly due to protesters using the Green Day song as the soundtrack for his visit to London. Add to that an orchestrated campaign by Trump haters since then – with Reddit users leading the charge – to manipulate Google’s algorithms into making the word-image association a permanent feature.
Keep in mind, though, that the idiot tag was not conjured out of thin air.
Some of Trump’s closest aides, from outgoing chief of staff John Kelly and sacked secretary of state Rex Tillerson to treasury chief Steven Mnuchin, have been quoted as calling their president an idiot, or using synonyms to that effect.
Tillerson, who has yet to deny describing Trump as a “moron” with the F-word as a prefix, recently spoke on the record of how difficult it was to work with “a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just says, ‘This is what I believe.’”
Keep Trump’s “stable genius” self-descriptor in mind when trying to get your head around his astonishing clash on camera with top Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in the Oval Office this week. During the bickering over funding for Trump’s border wall, the two opposition politicians managed to goad him into taking the blame in advance if it ended in a government shutdown – something you always pin on the other side.
“You want to know something? I’ll take it,” he said. “Yes, if we don’t get what we want one way or the other, whether it’s through you, through military, through anything you want to call – I will shut down the government. I am proud to shut down the government. I will take the mantle.”
It’s time to start listening to Green Day again, with the volume turned all the way up to 11.
Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post