GOP Tycoon’s Google Alternative Dishes Up Suspect Results

·7 min read
John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune via Getty
John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune via Getty

A new “anti-censorship” search engine helmed by conservative tycoon Todd Ricketts has big ambitions of taking on Google, but already the platform is turning up some questionable results.

Ricketts, who co-owns the Chicago Cubs with members of his massively influential family and who helped spearhead fundraising for Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, launched the Freespoke app in May after complaining that platforms like Google were advancing a left-wing bias.

One example in which he thinks other search engines display too much orthodoxy is climate change, he told conservative podcaster Megyn Kelly last month. “I don’t think I’m a denier or anything, but I’m also an intellectual who wants to see the facts and lay it out and be thoughtful about it. And to say that there’s some sort of consensus, or that people who disagree with the consensus can’t be heard, it’s just dangerous,” he said.

Freespoke’s aversion to filtering out content, however, appears to amplify some fringe positions. In response to a search query about vaccines, one of the top headlines declared that, per one study, the coronavirus “jab [is] more dangerous than COVID.” (Google displays national vaccination rates and eligibility information from vaccines.gov.) A curated selection of public commentary on the pandemic, meanwhile, featured conspiratorial takes, including one suggesting the U.S. government and Moderna nefariously knew COVID was coming before the pandemic had started (“How did they know!!??”) and another that seemed to imply Bill Gates may have been behind the outbreak.

In a box on its website, Freespoke also invites users to search for topics it claims “Google won’t” show, such as “Who is Dr. Fauci?” and the “January 6th Commission.” After a Daily Beast reporter clicked on the latter, the top result was an article questioning whether “Democrats Let the Capitol Riot Happen.”

Freespoke, which calls its users “freefolk,” is just the latest conservative effort to take on mainstream technology platforms. Other examples include a right-wing dating app, a Trumpian Twitter clone, and a YouTube rival. Like other right-wing start-ups, Freespoke has a skeleton crew of fewer than 50 employees, according to Chicago Business.

Yet even with its wealthy backing, the company has not made an immediate dent in the search engine sphere, according to data shared with The Daily Beast from the digital intelligence platform Similarweb. In July, Freespoke received an infinitesimal 190,000 visits, compared to 893 million for DuckDuckGo, a competitor conservatives previously championed for its “free speech” policies. (Perceptions of DuckDuckGo have since grown more complicated.) That said, Google dwarfed both sites, with nearly 87 billion monthly visits.

To Freespoke’s credit, the platform experienced its largest month in August, crossing the threshold of half a million monthly visits.

Freespoke’s strategy includes labeling the media outlets in its search results “left,” “right,” or “middle”—thereby signaling its own professed impartiality—and pledging not to censor content. (It categorizes The Daily Beast, which describes itself as “non-partisan but not neutral,” as “left.”)

Heidi Julien, professor of information science at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education, called the company’s positioning “ludicrous.”

“Whatever search algorithm they're using is going to find some things and not others just as other search engines do,” she wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “There is undoubtedly going to be all kinds of bias in what this search engine produces and labels.”

Jeffrey Blevins, co-author of the forthcoming book Social Media, Social Justice, and the Political Economy of Online Networks, added that tagging outlets based on their purported ideologies might worsen political bubbles, since readers will be disinclined to click labels they aren’t aligned with.

Ricketts has insisted that Freespoke is for “everybody,” but based on his media appearances and the company’s social media posts, the startup appears to be targeting right-wing users.

On Tuesday, the homepage included trending topics such as “Hunter Biden,” the “border crisis,” and “rising crime,” and an entire section devoted to so-called “censored” stories that “the media doesn’t want you to see.” (Many of the stories are in fact published by, or aggregated from, media outlets, albeit often those with a right-wing bent.) On Tuesday afternoon, the three “censored stories” highlighted on the homepage were from the far-right publication Breitbart.

Reached via email, Freespoke co-founder Kristin Jackson said the company believes “showing all viewpoints is of great value.” She added that she has “friends and [has] met users whose political views are left, right, and center,” arguing that the site simply tries to contextualize information from disparate sources and is experiencing “notable growth and adoption.”

As for amplifying fringe voices, Jackson said she conducted her own search for vaccinations on the site and turned up results for the “CDC, Vaccines.gov, Mayo Clinic and FDA.”

Indeed, many search queries on Freespoke—which says it doesn’t track users or sell their data—turn up similar results to those on Google, Bing, and other mainstream platforms. Yet given the site’s premise of showing information its competitors won’t, by design that isn’t always the case.

Conservative personalities like Nick Adams, GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, and Ryann McEnany—whose sister Kayleigh served as Trump’s press secretary—have publicly lauded the app. (Ryann McEnany has since deleted her promotional tweet.)

But Freespoke has yet to catch fire.

One Trumpworld on-air star and one current Trump adviser inside the former president’s inner circle told The Daily Beast they’ve never heard of the venture before.

The influential on-air conservative host who speaks to Trump told The Daily Beast: “I have never heard of Freespoke. What is it?”

Others within Trumpworld, including former administration officials, were more critical, stating that while Ricketts’ venture might have capital behind it, compared to some other conservative startups, it doesn't have the trusted Trump stamp of approval.

“It’s not just about how much money you can invest in a project, it also depends on who is aligned with it and who are your biggest megaphones,” a former Trump administration official close to Trump’s inner circle told The Daily Beast. “Platforms like [Donald Trump Jr.’s news aggregator] MxM have both in spades, and that’s what is lacking for other platforms.”

Freespoke also faces stiff competition for conservative eyeballs, including from The Drudge Report and similarly positioned right-wing “Citizen Free Press” aggregator. Freespoke’s big differentiator is its status as a search engine.

Ricketts’ political activism runs in the family. His brother Pete is the governor of Nebraska, where he has pushed to restrict abortions without exceptions for rape and incest. His billionaire father, Joe—who founded the predecessor to brokerage firm TD Ameritrade— came under fire in 2017 after the now-defunct website Splinter published Islamophobic emails he had written. (He later apologized.)

According to Julien, the University at Buffalo professor, part of Todd Ricketts’ criticism of the tech giants is legitimate. “I do think that the algorithms that they use, which are secret, don’t necessarily do a good job of identifying information from marginalized voices. And there’s no question that they deliver to the searcher information that is similar to what that particular searcher has clicked on in the past,” she said. But she rejected the notion that the platforms are uniquely “biased against conservative perspectives.”

Some of Freespoke’s marketing has also cast doubt on whether it really intends to be a middle-of-the-road alternative to Google and the mainstream press. In March, after CNN inserted a graphic content warning into a video about the war in Ukraine, which showed a dead child and a corpse being flung into a mass grave, Freespoke derisively thanked the outlet on Twitter for “letting us know that war is disturbing.” It appended the message with a clown emoji.

Anthony Nadler, associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College, said Freespoke is part of a larger trend by conservatives to discredit institutions, like Google, “that claim to apply some kind of fair mediation or objectivity to conflicting views”—using the argument that such groups are secretly liberal.

One of the risks for Freespoke, he added, is that by failing to filter out content, the platform will quickly be “gamed from the conspiratorial types, who already have too much power in conservative circles.”

But before that risk becomes a major problem, Freespoke will first have to deliver any kind of impact at all.

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