“45% of immigrants to the USA are on welfare”, said my friend. “I got that figure from someone who is very well informed on these matters.”
“And who would that be?” I asked.
“It’s not important. Let me just say that he’s a very intelligent person who has done quite a bit of research in this area.”
“Those numbers seem awfully high.” I said, “I’m sure you won’t mind if I check them out.”
“Go ahead, but you’ll find they’re accurate.”
It turns out he was right. Well, almost.
If you Google ‘percentage of American immigrants on welfare’, the two highest ranked results will confirm his figures. In fact, the subhead under the first result gives even higher levels: “Illegal immigrant-headed households’ use of welfare is high at 62 percent, higher than the 30 percent for households headed by native-born Americans.”
Since two stories repeat this message at the top of the page you might assume they have some credibility. To bolster that impression the figures are also quoted in a USA Today story further down, giving the impression that the mainstream media is on board as well.
But you’d be wrong. Ranking high in Google’s search engine is not a reflection of accuracy. All it means is that someone with a lot of Search Engine Optimization skills has tweaked the site so that it shows up at the top.
The think tank The Center for Immigration Studies that published the study turns out to be an anti-immigration lobby group supported by the Heritage Foundation. Their figures have been debunked by Snopes, Media/Bias/Fact Check and the New Republic. But also, revealingly, by the Cato Institute, that bastion of right wing ideology. If even they think they’re bogus, there’s obviously a problem:
“The CIS study exaggerates the number of immigrants on welfare by using households as the unit of analysis; as long as the head of household is an immigrant, they consider it an immigrant household, and Camarota [writer of the report] counts a household “as using welfare if any one of its members used welfare during 2012.”
This means that a household with an American spouse who therefore qualified for welfare could be counted as “using welfare.” The same would go for a child born in the United States to immigrant parents. If he or she received subsidized lunch at school, the whole household would be categorized as “using welfare.”
Pretty clear. The report was nonsense.
So what should I tell my friend?
This: Extremist websites and fake news outlets are a menace to democracy and rational debate. But there are other forms of insidious persuasion as well. SEO is one of them. The fact that something shows up at the top of the page when you search it has a powerful impact. It’s why companies spend millions on trying to outsmart the Google algorithm to get there. It works.
And it looks like those folks who are willing to contaminate public debate with lies know it, too. So, when you’re trying to find the truth about something on Google, look beyond those first few stories.