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Google.gov: Part 2
“A world of unseen dictatorship is conceivable, still using the forms of democratic government.”
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For most Americans, Google is an abstraction—more of a search engine than an actual company. Little thought is ever given to the wonks who pull the levers, though there are obviously a lot of people behind the logo. Google has engineers, and those engineers make judgements—judgements that are largely determined by the company’s goals and mission statement.
That’s why it’s significant that in April 2018, Google updated its Code of Conduct for the first time in 17 years. The previous version had opened with the words “Don’t be evil,” which among other things required “providing our users unbiased access to information.” But the new version omits any assurance of objectivity, instead opening with an ambiguous reference to “Google’s values” and adding a new mention of “respect for our users.”
The fact that any changes were made at all is telling. It would appear to indicate that the company’s founders realized the conceit of algorithms unsullied by human biases or business considerations was no longer tenable. Whereas before, Google could deflect complaints and concerns by pointing to its algorithms and pleading ignorance, its many recent interventions on political grounds have rendered that alibi null. It’s a long overdue change after gaslighting Congress and the public alike about Google’s identity as a disinterested index of information despite no shortage of examples to the contrary, including caving to pressure from businesses, outside interest groups, and governments around the world—incidents that have increased sharply since the 2016 election.
In the last post, we talked about how a close reading of Google’s history suggests the evolution of a company focused on neutral service/products to one with progressive allegiances and partisan interests that has routinely demonstrated a willingness to use its unrivaled surveillance apparatus in pursuit of its vague lodestar, “The public good.” Google’s moralizing isn’t unique among corporate America. As Derek Thompson observed in The Atlantic, “America’s corporate community has become a quiet defender of socially liberal causes.” Ross Douthat of the New York Times described the phenomenon as “the rise of woke capital,” writing that “the country’s biggest companies are growing a conscience, prodded along by shifts in public opinion and Donald Trump’s depredations and their own idealistic young employees, and becoming a vanguard force for social change.”
The difference, of course, is that Google isn’t a normal company. A central responsibility of an information intermediary is, or ought to be, refraining from using data in ways designed to further the political goals of the intermediary. When Google’s employees or algorithms block our access to information about a news story, business, or politician, reputations can be ruined, businesses can crumble, and opinions and votes can shift. Moreover, since its inception and in contrast to other companies, the tech giant has maintained incestuous relationships with Democratic administrations.
With this in mind, it’s important to understand that Google is ragingly progressive because it is predominantly comprised of raging progressives who proudly bring their politics to work with them. Though relatively rare, when the company’s internal culture leaks out, we’re offered an unfiltered look at the socio-political universe its employees occupy. It’s for this reason that saying Google is a dangerous, left-wing company isn’t really an opinion so much as a statement of fact.
Google’s Reaction to Trump’s Election
Shortly after calamity befell the elite establishment in 2016 and the Beast was slouching toward Bethlehem, Google held a company-wide meeting at its Mountain View, California HQ. At the time, the company recorded its all-hands meetings for internal use, and thanks to a whistleblower who leaked the video (above), we know what was said at this very-much-not-for-the-public-eye powwow, which could perhaps best be described as an emergency group therapy session for the sort of people you’d pay a princely sum to avoid having to sit next to at a dinner party.
The video begins with co-founder Sergey Brin, microphone in hand and evoking the respectful solemnity of a funeral director, lamenting that “As an immigrant and a refugee, I certainly find this election deeply offensive, and I know many of you do too. Most people here are pretty upset and pretty sad. [The election result]. . . conflicts with many of our values.”
After finishing his sermon, a series of equally funereal Google executives step forward to give their own this-is-absolutely-tragic lamentations.
Google’s head of global affairs and chief legal officer, Kent Walker, suggests the election was the result of “xenophobia, hatred, and a desire for answers that may or may not be there.” Eileen Naughton, the company’s head of human resources, jokes about moving to Canada. Ruth Porat, the chief financial officer, tries to recount her experience of election night, only to literally break down in tears halfway through. She then leads a company-wide group hug.
All of Google’s C-suite takes the stage, and every single one of them expresses nothing but abject horror and dismay that Clinton lost and Trump won. At one point, a lower-ranking employee asks the pooh bahs if maybe something positive might come from Trump’s election, and the entire room erupts with laughter.
Brin, the dude who opened the meeting by calling the decision of the American public to elect Trump “offensive,” goes on to say that “boredom” had driven American voters to “extremism,” and even suggests that Jigsaw, a program Google developed to intervene in search results to guide potential Islamic terrorists away from extremist content, could be used against this new form of “extremism.”
The aforementioned Kent Walker then says that they should work to ensure that the populist movement represented by Trump becomes nothing more than a “blip” and a “hiccup” in history’s march toward progress.
Former Chromebook engineer Kevin Cernekee explained what it was like at Google in the aftermath of Trump’s election:
Many of my colleagues took the entire week off to mourn—managers openly encouraged this. These same managers sent out wistful emails pontificating about how the election was a devastating setback for women and minorities, and that we should keep their struggle at the forefront of our minds.
There were numerous cases of employees sending anti-Trump propaganda, invitations to protests, and solicitations for progressive charities straight to their work mailing lists. They did not seem to consider the possibility that some of their coworkers might be Republicans. The blatant in-your-face workplace activism even made some progressives uncomfortable. Administrative assistants discussed ways to change their groups’ purchasing decisions to boycott small businesses whose owners supported Republicans.
Everywhere you looked, there was a massive frenzy of overdramatized [sic] complaints that President-Elect Trump was plotting to put innocents in death camps, deny lifesaving drugs to members of the LGBT community, and perpetrate ethnic cleansing.
As internal activism progressed, said Cernekee, “there were a dozen-plus ‘resist’ groups since people also set up local groups (resist-mv, resist-sf, resist-nyc, I think) to coordinate activist gatherings in each region. One thing I remember seeing on these lists is training for ‘ICE intervention,’ where employees would learn how to interfere with Border Patrol enforcement operations.”
Some tried to go even further. In a 2018 lawsuit filed by a former Google employee, it was alleged that Alon Altman, a senior engineer at the company, urged his superiors to “brick” (sabotage) the president’s Android phone, ban the Gmail accounts of his administration’s senior officials and staff, and for good measure, strip Breitbart News of all Google ads.
According to the suit, senior management did little to clamp down on Altman’s efforts to “use the full economic force [of] Google for good,” and a company-wide petition to actually have the Breitbart website demonetized was soon launched.
It’s worth mentioning that at the time, even companies like CNN and MSNBC would’ve frowned upon such openly partisan theatrics. Google, however, more or less encouraged it. And this was before Trump had even stepped foot inside the Oval Office.
Dr. Robert Epstein, a psychologist and former editor in chief of Psychology Today, has done more than anyone else to study the potential scope and reach of Google’s power. He’s published more than fifteen books and over three hundred articles on psychology, artificial intelligence, and a variety of other topics. And, importantly, he’s a Harvard-educated liberal who has openly stated he votes Democrat.
For 10 years now, Epstein has been studying how search engine results influence decision-making, including political decision-making. In 2013, long before left-wing bias from Big Tech companies would become a major national issue, the psychologist and his colleague Ronald E. Robertson sought to demonstrate the possible political impact of a biased search engine. They decided to do an experiment, taking a diverse set of Americans matching key voting demographics and presenting them with real search results linked to real web pages about a real foreign election. One group was given a biased set of search results, and the other was not. After viewing the search results, participants were asked to back one candidate or the other.
Epstein and his colleague predicted 2 - 3% of participants would shift toward the candidate that was more prevalent in search results. They were wrong.
What we actually found was astonishing. The proportion of people favouring the search engine’s top-ranked candidate increased by 48.4%, and all five of our measures shifted toward that candidate. What’s more, 75% of the people in the bias groups seemed to have been completely unaware that they were viewing biased search rankings.
Over the next year or so, Epstein and his colleagues conducted several more studies replicating what they called the “Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME).” The third time was with a sample of more than 2,000 people from all 50 states. In that experiment, the shift in voting preferences was 37.1%—as high as 80% in some demographic groups. The most famous study, however, was in 2014, and it involved real voters in the Indian elections. Epstein found search-engine-induced shifts in voting preferences of up to 60% in some demographics, and that 99.5% of participants showed no realization that the search results they saw had been altered to favor a particular candidate.
As a result of his research, Epstein has called Google the “most powerful mind-control engine ever created.” He believes that Google’s immense power to influence our political preferences stems from the fact that people don’t perceive search results to be biased. Unlike, say, Fox News or CNN where bias and propaganda are obvious, seemingly neutral search results are able to circumvent our natural psychological defenses against manipulation.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019, Epstein called the SEME “one of the most powerful forms of influence ever discovered in the behavioral sciences.” According to his most recent research, Google’s autocomplete search suggestions “can turn a 50/50 split among undecided voters into a 90/10 split without people’s awareness” by manipulating people’s thinking and behavior “from the very first character typed into the search box.”
Essentially what this means is that the supranational power to sway elections around the world is in the hands of a bunch of ideologues who not only cried when Trump was elected but took turns sharing painfully overwrought jeremiads on why it was more or less an apocalyptic event for American democracy. And there’s no public oversight. Google wields a degree of political power that’s insane, and we have to take it on faith that they won’t misuse it—the people who immediately set out to undermine a newly elected president.
The Clinton Campaign
It gets more interesting. There’s reason to believe Google has already been abusing its power.
In addition to donating over $1.6 million to her campaign,1 executives employed a variety of strategies to elect Hillary Clinton and defeat Donald Trump. A review found at least 57 people were affiliated with both Clinton — in her presidential campaign, in her State Department, and at her family foundation — and with Google or related entities.2 In April 2015, for example, Clinton hired Google product manager Stephanie Hannon to be her chief technology officer,3 and not long after, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, set up a semi-secret company — “The Groundwork” — for the specific purpose of putting Clinton in office. This prompted Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, to dub Google Clinton’s “secret weapon” in her quest for the presidency.
Dan Crenshaw Embarrasses Google:
Epstein and researchers at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology preserved more than 13,000 election-related search results on Google, Yahoo!, and Bing from the 2016 election. They discovered “significant bias” in Google results in favor of Hillary Clinton in “all 10 positions on the first page of search results in both blue states and red states.” That’s a big deal. Particularly in light of the fact that approximately 50% of clicks go to the top two items, and more than 90% of clicks go to the 10 items listed on the first page of results.
Epstein conducted another, even larger study ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Preserving more than 47,000 results from Google, Yahoo!, and Bing linking to nearly 400,000 web pages, he once again found significant bias in favor of Democrats by Google. Applying his SEME findings, Epstein concluded that these search results would have affected upwards of 78.2 million votes.
SEME’s near-invisibility is curious indeed. It means that when people – including you and me – are looking at biased search rankings, they look just fine. So if right now you Google ‘US presidential candidates’, the search results you see will probably look fairly random, even if they happen to favour one candidate. Even I have trouble detecting bias in search rankings that I know to be biased (because they were prepared by my staff).
Yet our randomised, controlled experiments tell us over and over again that when higher-ranked items connect with web pages that favour one candidate, this has a dramatic impact on the opinions of undecided voters, in large part for the simple reason that people tend to click only on higher-ranked items. This is truly scary: like subliminal stimuli, SEME is a force you can’t see; but unlike subliminal stimuli, it has an enormous impact – like Casper the ghost pushing you down a flight of stairs.
Following the publication of Epstein’s findings on the 2016 election, Google submitted a lengthy comment to the Washington Post dismissing the results as a “poorly constructed conspiracy theory,” adding that the company doesn’t make any “ranking tweaks that are specific to elections or political candidates, period.” Google CEO Sundar Pichai has gone even further, claiming before Congress that the tech giant doesn’t “manually intervene” on any particular search results.
Well, according to Mike Wacker, who worked as a software engineer at Google from 2014 to 2019, Pichai is full of shit. Responding directly to Pichai’s claim, Wacker bluntly said, “Sundar Pichai did not tell the truth when he made this statement.” Wacker even wrote an article breaking down several leaks showing as much, including one involving Pichai’s own internal messages in which he described the manipulation of search results on YouTube, a Google-owned platform, as a “smoking gun” proving political bias.
It seems like every other week there’s another revelation about Big Tech censoring right-wing individuals. Last year, a new study was published showing how Gmail leans strongly Democratic, automatically sending Republican fundraising mail to users’ spam folders far more often than the Democratic ones in the runup to the 2020 elections. The news came courtesy of North Carolina State computer-science researchers, who examined 318,000 emails from May through November 2020 and evaluated Outlook and Yahoo accounts as well as Gmail.
The Effect Doesn’t Have to Be Enormous to Have An Enormous Effect
Does it matter that America’s largest and most powerful tech unicorn, the de facto gatekeeper of the world’s information repository, appears to have an ideologically monolithic leadership team and is teeming with activist employees of the progressive persuasion?
That’s a rhetorical question.
With its dominance over search results, online news aggregation, and smartphone operating systems, Google’s capacity to influence democratic elections goes far beyond that of any other company. And the effect doesn’t have to be enormous to have an enormous effect. When the scale is big enough, tiny factors can have a profound impact. In much the same way that the slightest change in a shooter’s iron sight will cause a bullet’s path to widen exponentially the further it travels towards its target, so too might an infinitesimal search engine alteration produce reverberating consequences of immense magnitude.
More than half of presidential elections in U.S. history have come down to a win margin of less than 8%, with the past three under 5%. And presidential elections are really just street fights between key states, with the focus of campaigns not on poll-tested winners or losers but swing states with razor-thin margins. During the 2010 U.S. congressional elections, researchers at Facebook exposed 61 million users to a message reminding them to vote — it didn’t matter for whom — and found they were able to generate 340,000 extra votes across the board.
Digital gerrymandering, the selective presentation of information by an intermediary like Google to meet its agenda rather than to serve its users, is possible on any platform that personalizes, be it algorithmically or by manual curation, what it presents, particularly when there’s a digital choke point with an abundance of items offered up but only a few that can be shown at a time.
This is all the more important in light of the fact that Google employees have re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have ever acknowledged—a shift from its founding philosophy of “organizing the world’s information,” to one that’s actively deciding how that information should appear to people.
Extreme forms of monitoring — whether by the KGB in the Soviet Union, the Stasi in East Germany, or China with its Social Credit System — are a hallmark of all tyrannies, and technology is making both monitoring and the consolidation of surveillance data easier than ever. The world we live in today is very much the world that Edward Snowden predicted a decade ago.
Technology has consequences, and these consequences are beginning to manifest as undetectable and untraceable manipulations of entire populations by an unholy alliance between corporations and government to not only monitor what we do, but invisibly influence knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. Even for those who make a conscious effort to “live off the grid” and decline to use social media and smartphones, it’s getting to the point where it’s all but impossible to operate in day-to-day life without consenting to data harvesting by entities looking to control and profit off of us. It is Orwellian to the maximus.
We’re talking about power on a level unprecedented in human history—virtually untraceable and well beyond the scope of existing regulations and laws. The biomedical tyranny carried out under the auspices of the pandemic was just the next logical extreme. As progressive internet “hacktivist” Aaron Swartz once said about Big Tech, “They have no constitution to answer to. They’re not elected. They have no constituents or voters. All of the protections we’ve built up to protect against government tyranny don’t exist for corporate tyranny.”
Just like for Joe Biden, Alphabet was HRC’s top donor.
An October 2015 article by Huffington Post — updated in 2017 — states that “there’s no evidence that any engineers or executives currently working for Google or Alphabet, Google’s parent company, are doing anything to support Clinton’s campaign.”
Before the 2016 election, Epstein and his team estimated that Stephanie Hannon’s Google connections had the power to drive between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes to Clinton on election day with no one knowing that this was occurring.
And because search rankings are ephemeral, they leave no paper trail, which gives the company plausible deniability.