Ramesh Srinivasan is a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles in the department of information studies and director of the UC Digital Cultures Lab. He is author of the forthcoming book “Beyond the Valley.”
Conservatives have made it their mission lately to paint tech companies as liberal opponents whose mission is to secretly thwart Republicans online. This includes President Trump, who tweeted this week that Google had “manipulated from 2.6 million to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election.”
The president, here, is wrong. Not only is he inaccurately summing up research on the effects of bias in Google’s search engine; he is also ignoring some key flaws in that research. But there’s a troubling kernel of truth here: Online companies wield powerful technology that shapes our beliefs, how we work and how we live. Their technologies act on all of us, regardless of our gender, race, age or political persuasion.
So while it’s wrong to characterize Google as part of the Democratic Party machine, there’s plenty of room to question how it’s affecting our democracy and society.
Trump’s tweet refers to research by Robert Epstein, an academic psychologist who testified in Congress in June that Google helped Hillary Clinton win at least 2.6 million votes in 2016 by serving undecided voters with politically biased search results. Epstein, who describes himself as “center-left,” claims that his research from the 2018 midterms shows that big tech companies hold the power to control 15 million votes, effectively making “free and fair election(s) meaningless.”
I have been studying the Internet’s impact on our political, cultural and economic lives across the world for 20 years, and Epstein is a respected colleague of mine. We both agree that the digital systems we use every day are dangerous to democracy. This is because the voices that create and monetize them are extremely limited — paving the way for a few tech billionaires to create the empires that monitor us daily, giving them the potential to manipulate our behavior.
But if we narrow the scope of tech’s influence to partisan politics, we miss the larger issue — that the influence of these systems is profoundly undemocratic. Big tech’s reach permeates every aspect of our lives, all the while remaining invisible and unaccountable.
The allegations against Google ignore real complexities in the voting process. For example, Epstein testified that Google shifted millions of votes from “undecided” to the Clinton ledger, but could any of us know for sure that a mere search result is sufficient to determine a person’s vote? A liberal skew in search results around health care might make a voter more sympathetic to a Democrat, but it might be the candidates’ stances on abortion that determine the person’s actual vote. Epstein’s research didn’t take this into account.
In addition, how we word our searches might influence the visibility of conservative vs. liberal information sources. One person might search for “terrorist attack”; another might search for “Islamic terror.” Wouldn’t this affect what each person sees?
And of course, not all activity online promotes the Democratic cause. As Trump so often ignores, several entities — from Cambridge Analytica to the Russian government — gamed platforms such as Facebook to support his candidacy. Yes, Facebook labels certain “news” stories differently when they come from sponsors on our feeds, but is there any evidence that we really noticed the difference?
In truth, the pernicious effect of private, corporate technology platforms on our political lives is complex. They are not cheerleaders for a political party; their goal is to keep us glued to their sites and services, all while surveilling us 24/7. They don’t do this for fun, or necessarily for political power; they do it because it makes them billions of dollars.
It’s time to demand transparency and accountability on our tech platforms, specifically on what data they collect, why we see the content we see and how we can navigate through the morass of information they claim to make available to us. We think we are searching when we go onto Google, but in fact, the company is searching us. It is surveilling our interests for its own purposes, and we have no control over how these technologies influence our behavior or thinking.
Ultimately, we should remember that at its infancy, the Internet was funded by taxpayer money. As private corporations reap the spoils of this technological marvel, they owe a debt to the public — they should open themselves up to regulation, audit and competition. Google, Facebook, Amazon and other companies can support democracy by entering into a new social contract, both to serve the public interest and to support our own sovereignty as users. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.)
Google poses a problem, but not because it’s a phantom organ of the Democratic Party. The real issue is that its mysterious workings — as well as those of its fellow tech companies — are hidden far from sight and controlled by a few. It’s time for a digital bill of rights — one that ensures that the rest of us and our interests are part of the Internet’s DNA, as well.