In an extensive analysis of over half a million news-related search results in Turkey, Journo has unveiled evidence of algorithmic bias by Google, the Silicon Valley behemoth. The investigation suggests that Google’s algorithms disproportionately amplified partisan media outlets ahead of the crucial Turkish elections, even disseminating disinformation and hate speech targeting opposition figures.
As Turkey braces for the May 14 elections, the latest polls suggest a razor-thin margin between incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and main opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Journo’s investigation into Google’s algorithmic handling of news content adds another layer to an already tense electoral climate.
The investigation, led by the non-profit journalism website’s editor Emre Kızılkaya, pointed to a significant imbalance. “Google algorithms favor pro-Erdogan publishers over independent ones by a margin of 81 to 19,” Kızılkaya told Chatham House’s international affairs magazine, The World Today, referencing findings from the pre-election period.
The data, gathered over seven months leading up to the elections, encompassed over 500,000 news-related search results. The team consistently monitored data from Google, a leading digital news source in Turkey, tracking popular keywords such as “breaking news” and “news,” as well as daily trends. The team also regularly observed Google News app, which employs a separate algorithm to select news sources and their content.
Google’s Recommended News Sources Show a Lack of Diversity
According to the findings, Google appears to ignore the diversity inherent in user preferences in Turkey when choosing news sources, instead favoring a limited range of publishers.
The algorithm recommended 13 news sites more than 10,000 times, accounting for almost half (49.2%) of all recommendations. Of these sites, Sözcü and Cumhuriyet are widely recognized as the only news outlets known for their commitment to independent journalism in Turkey. The remaining sources are either directly or indirectly controlled by the ruling party. Turkey dropped to the 165th place out of 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index.
Furthermore, the total number of Turkish news sites recommended by Google has recently decreased, according to Journo’s data. The number, which neared 700 in the fall of 2022, fell to the 500s by the end of the year and has remained at this level since.
Google Boosts Fake News Targeting Main Opposition Candidate Ahead Of Elections
In addition to concerns about the diversity of news sources, the specific news content that Google opted to spotlight proved to be notably contentious. One example cited by Kızılkaya underscores the extent of Google’s algorithmic bias in Turkey.
Yeni Akit, a radical Islamist newspaper, disseminated a fake video falsely claiming support for the opposition’s presidential candidate from terrorist organizations. Google’s recommendation system amplified the disinformation content targeting the opposition leader, potentially exposing millions of users to it (below).
Kızılkaya previously drew attention to how Turkey’s partisan outlets propagate hate speech, targeting vulnerable minorities in Turkey, including the LGBTQ+ community, Jews, and women. Despite appeals for these media outlets to be sanctioned, Google has yet to take action.
“These latest findings raise significant concerns about the fairness and transparency of Big Tech algorithms, which have substantial influence over public discourse especially in fragile democracies like Turkey,” Kızılkaya stated.