Pichai never punched back when conservatives came at him. In the fieriest episode, Representative Jim Jordan forcefully questioned Pichai about a post-election memo from Eliana Murillo, the multicultural-marketing manager, concerning the company’s efforts to turn out Latino voters. In it, Murillo states, “We kept our Google efforts non-partisan and followed our company’s protocols for the elections strategy,” and goes on to explain, “We also supported partners like Voto Latino to pay for rides to the polls in key states (silent donation).” Jordan focused on Murillo’s use of the phrase “key states”—which he took to mean battleground states. In the face of the attack, Pichai faltered. He didn’t offer an alternative explanation of what the “key states” might be, such as states with large Latino populations. Instead, he referred to his employee’s own words as “allegations” and did not directly refute Jordan’s exasperated suggestion that Murillo lied in the memo.
Google’s admittedly liberal employees, Republicans said, must, somehow, be tinkering with search rankings. “You’re so surrounded by liberality that hates conservatism, hates people who really love our Constitution and the freedoms it has afforded to people like you,” Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas told Pichai. “You don’t even recognize it. You’re like a blind man who doesn’t even know what light looks like.”
Gohmert ran out of time before Pichai could answer. But he did get to respond to Representative Steve King’s questioning about the effect of Google employees’ generally liberal political leanings on search rankings.
“Congressman, it’s an important question,” Pichai said, “but the way we rank our results is essentially on user feedback, and that’s what drives the iterative loop.”
This is, more or less, true. It’s not the whole story, because Google uses a variety of factors, especially with news stories. But what people click on in search results—as well as their subsequent behavior—drives what the search engine shows to that user and others. Or, as my colleague Ian Bogost put it, “for Google, everything is a popularity contest.”
Read: For Google, everything is a popularity contest.
King ignored the answer and went on to push for Google engineers’ social media to be examined and Google’s algorithms to be published, before threatening much more substantial regulation up to the “Teddy Roosevelt” antitrust option, then asking Pichai why a mean message about King showed up on his granddaughter’s iPhone, which is made by Apple.
“Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company, and so, you know, I mean—” Pichai began.
“It could have been an Android,” King replied, holding up a phone. “It was a hand-me-down of some kind.”
“Uh, you know, I’m happy to follow up with you to understand the specifics,” Pichai said. “There may have been an app being used which had a notification, but I’m happy to understand it better and clarify it for you.”