Near the end of the debate between New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon, his Democratic primary challenger, one of the moderators prefaced a question to Ms. Nixon by referencing her net worth. “Given your personal wealth, reported to be in the tens of millions of dollars — ” CBS anchorman Maurice DuBois started before Ms. Nixon interrupted: “ — which is not true.”
“It’s been reported,” he said.
“You can’t trust Google,” Ms. Nixon said, knowing everyone does.
The net worth of Cynthia Nixon, who would go on to lose that primary, has indeed been reported at $60 million. It’s been reported by the New York Observer, Washington Times, NYLON magazine, Bustle, the British tabloid The Sun and Newsweek. Perhaps most importantly, if you Google “Cynthia Nixon net worth,” the website displays “$60 million” in bold in a big featured box at the top of the page. (Alexa gives the same answer.) The source for the number on Google and in all the articles is a website called Celebrity Net Worth, and the source for the number on that site is “a proprietary algorithm.”
CelebrityNetWorth.com, and let’s call it CNW, was founded by Brian Warner in 2009 — not the same Brian Warner who performs under the name Marilyn Manson (Celebrity Net Worth: $25 million). The site’s home page is full of standard curiosity-gap clickbait in a celebrity finance flavor, with headlines like “Billionaire Michael Jordan Has Zero Influence On Which Players Wear His Shoes, And The Reason Why Is Kind Of Strange …” and “How Much Money Did Colonel Sanders Make Off Kentucky Fried Chicken? Not As Much As You’d Guess!” But CNW’s core product is the collection of pages it maintains for celebrities (of varying degrees of celebrity) with authoritatively phrased estimates as to how much money they have.
So how does CNW determine that, financially, the superhero Chrises could stack inside each other like matryoshka dolls? The authoritative tone of the site implies that somewhere there’s a computer mainframe running a program that monitors headlines, real estate sales, art auctions and whatever else, then processes that data and spits out a useful number. But that seems implausible, in part because CNW has no computer scientists on staff. While freelancers write most of the clickbait, every “net worth” page is posted from Mr. Warner’s author account. Mr. Warner did not respond to emails or phone calls. John Warner — attorney, site co-owner and father — declined to answer questions on the younger Mr. Warner’s behalf. “The site is what it is,” he said when reached by phone. “It’s online. You can visit it.”
If you examine CNW closely, you can see what looks like a human hand behind the magic occasionally slip into view. “The Cosby Show” actor Geoffrey Owens was listed at half a million dollars until September 1, when photos of Mr. Owens working a retail job went public, whereupon his number was revised downward to $300,000. With some exceptions — such as that of Lindsay Lohan, who is valued at $800,000 at CNW — the numbers tend to be higher than one might expect for A-listers.
There’s an understandable sense to that: Publicists are less likely to complain if you err on the side of calling their clients rich. “I do think our users understand we’re talking about the best possible ballpark,” Brian Warner told the business site Quartz in 2015. Dollar-level accuracy, he said, “honestly doesn’t even matter that much.”
The “best possible ballpark” is a low standard of accuracy for facts, but if you’re the only one on the internet offering an answer to a question people are asking, you become the trusted authority. When slightly more respectable journalistic outlets repeat CNW numbers — and they often do — those figures get both murkier and more authoritative. “Ballparked” net worth becomes “reported” net worth becomes hard to dispute, as Ms. Nixon discovered.
CNW is offering answers to questions that don’t have hard and fast answers. Rich people don’t know how much money they have, and “net worth” includes appraisals on all sorts of nonliquid assets, from cars and houses to fractions of companies. Jeff Bezos doesn’t have $150 billion in gold coins in a swimming-pool vault under the Space Needle. Most people know that, at least on some level. But that doesn’t stop us from Googling, and it doesn’t stop Google from sourcing snippet results from CNW.
Prime placement of that information is not about its accuracy either. A Google spokesman said the featured snippets are meant to point users to the most relevant piece of content given their query — and “relevant” is a very different criteria than “correct.”
But Google gives as briskly as it takes. Now Google’s top search spot for Ms. Lohan’s small fortune is dominated by an article from BankRate.com published in April 2017, which lists her net worth at $500,000. Their source? Just an outdated number from Celebrity Net Worth. Meanwhile, GoBankingRates.com owns the results for Chris Hemsworth’s net worth and TheCinemaholic.com owns the results for that of Chris Pine. While CNW owns results for many other people named Chris, good old Time.com owns the top spot for Chris Rock.
The American media has printed guesses and lies about celebrities for as long as the two have existed; that’s hardly Google or Amazon’s fault. But because “the internet” has become our default source for information, it is easier for tabloid facts to circulate under credible logos. The trivia that results can be hard to dispel.
And a high reported net worth can make a difference out here in the real world. According to Jonathan Greenberg, a former Forbes writer, Donald Trump often tried to game the Fortune 400 list, repeatedly inflating reports of his wealth in order to bolster the impression of him as an iconically rich guy. That tactic has worked out pretty well for him so far.