Big tech companies like Google have the power to “shift upwards of 12 million votes with no one knowing they’re doing so,” a research psychologist said, underscoring the influence profit-making firms can have on public elections.
That, he said, is too much power for “just a couple of executives” and is why tech giant monopolies need to be thought of as public utilities and not private entities.
“Research I have been directing in recent years suggests that Google, Inc., has amassed far more power to control elections — indeed, to control a wide variety of opinions and beliefs — than any company in history has ever had,” research psychologist Robert Epstein says.
In 2015, Dr. Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, wrote a groundbreaking paper about the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME), published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
“Google’s search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more — up to 80 percent in some demographic groups — with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated,” Epstein wrote in Politico at the time.
That kind of a margin could tilt an election, he noted. Indeed, Epstein’s research shows that Google manipulated search results to display pro-Hillary Clinton results higher on the page than others.
With Google reaching a billion users last year, according to The Verge, and the company collecting over $100 billion a year in revenue, the tech giant has acquired an unheard-of power over how we think and how we access information.
Epstein spoke about the next phase of his studies: an “electronic cat and mouse game,” a system for collecting, monitoring and analyzing data that can identify and quantify “every single manipulation, every single kind of bias there is,” to hold tech giants accountable.
”I’ve calculated that the big tech companies can shift upwards of 12 million votes with no one knowing they’re doing so without and leaving a paper trail for the authorities to track,” Epstein said.
Google claims user activity causes the manipulation, but Epstein said his research found that it affected both red and blue states and that the first 10 results in searches were consistently biased towards Hillary Clinton.
“All reasonable people… will agree that no private company should have the power to decide what content billions of people around the world will see or will not see. Just think about that issue. Whoever that power should be given to, it’s certainly not to a private company in Mountain View, California; it’s just not. We might need entities that are spin offs from the United Nations, we might need nonprofits, nonpartisan groups… we can all agree it can’t be in the hands of a private company. That’s absurd.”
“The search engine itself is an index to what’s on the internet; it’s an index, basically, to all knowledge. Well, the internet doesn’t belong to Google. The internet belongs to the world, and the index to the internet must be public. And by public I don’t just mean public like, USA; it has to be controlled internationally. There has to be transparency; a lot of cooperation is going to be necessary. And I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but the fact is, that index has to be public — period.”
“In terms of laws or regulations or antitrust actions, there’s some things in motion. There’s lots going on in the EU in that regard; people are gearing up in Washington, DC. Right now there are hearings, there’s talk about antitrust actions — I think some things will happen. I don’t think law or regulation is going to help us very much, because law and regulation moves very slowly. Painfully slowly — sometimes, in fact, it gets stalled, completely stalled. Whereas tech, though, tech moves lightning fast,” Epstein said.
“There is a solution here — in some ways it’s a lighter touch because it doesn’t involve changes in laws and regulations — and that is monitoring. I successfully developed and implemented, deployed a monitoring system in 2016 that was written up in the Washington Post… I’m working now with business partners and with academics on three continents to scale up and broaden what we did in 2016. You have to envision here, probably within the next year, the beginnings of what I call a ‘worldwide ecology of passive monitoring systems.’ That is: systems that can’t be detected, that will show us 24/7 what these big tech companies are showing people or what they’re telling people through these new audio devices.”
“By collecting that data, by monitoring it, by analyzing it rapidly, we will be able to detect, very precisely, when Mark Zuckerberg sends out a targeted ‘go out and vote’ message, for example, that could easily flip an election. We’ll see whether there is bias in search results or search suggestions. We will actually be able to quantify shadowbanning, very precisely, on Twitter and elsewhere. So every single manipulation, every single kind of bias there is, we’ll be able to capture it at the moment. You see, it’s all ephemeral content; it’s transitory. It comes, it goes, it’s gone, it’s not stored anywhere, and then we speculate about what’s going on,” he said.
“Well, with monitoring systems in place, we won’t have to speculate. I believe that these systems will make the big tech companies accountable to the public for the first time. And there’s another advantage here: whereas law and regulation is always behind whatever’s going on, monitoring systems basically are their new technologies. We’re fighting tech with tech, and monitoring systems can keep up with whatever is happening in technology. As technology changes, matures, whatever, the monitoring systems change and mature; they adapt. A cat and mouse game, an electronic cat and mouse game that never stops, maybe goes on for decades.”
Noting how the first companies that provided services such as electrical power, fire departments and roads were initially private but are today thought of as ubiquitous public utilities, Epstein told hosts Walter Smolarek and John Kiriakou that “that’s what happening now with these big tech companies, particularly the search engines, but I would argue we could even put Facebook into that category as well. Once a market is dominated by a monopoly, once the barriers to entry are so large that really no one can get in, and that’s where we are now, and once we become dependent on these services, once they become essential services, which certainly Google’s search engine is, once that happens we have to look at it through a different lens. And that’s happened over and over again in recent history, and I think that’s where we are right now.”
“There is a big difference though,” between older monopolies like Standard Oil and AT&T and internet companies like Google and Facebook, he said. “Those companies were doing things that, for the most part, we could see and we could understand. Whereas what Google and Facebook and Twitter are doing — a lot of what they’re doing we can’t see, we can’t understand. That’s what my discoveries have been about for more than five years. We’re talking about extremely powerful tools for altering people’s thinking.”
“Let’s think about Google for what it really is: a surveillance machine,” he said.
“Let’s think about its real effect, which is the control of thinking and behavior and opinion. Basically it’s the most powerful mind control machine that has ever — ever — been invented in human history.”
“That brings me to the key question: what if the mind control machine doesn’t want you thinking bad things about the mind control machine?”
“This is not AT&T,” he said. “It’s a different beast entirely — and it’s a scary beast.”
Epstein said there wasn’t much recourse in the field of the law. He noted that Google gets sued — a lot — and you can view the catalog of cases brought against the tech giant at Google Crimes, but “when these cases go to court, 99 times out of 100 Google wins, hands down. Because we don’t have laws and regulations that protect us from these companies, and over and over again, the courts rule that these companies are protected, either by [Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996] or by the First Amendment right to free speech.”
Epstein noted that court rulings repeatedly recognized Google’s right to free speech as a private company. He further pointed out that Google, with “one of the highest profit margins of any country in history,” can simply shrug off any fines leveled against it for its conduct — such as the European Union did earlier this year, when it fined Google $5.1 billion, or last year when it leveled a $2.7 billion fine against it for having biased search results.
Epstein told about what he called “a landmark article” by him that will be published in the periodical “Fast Company” in the next few days, which is presently titled, “How Big Tech Could Quietly Hijack Democracy: A Researcher Describes 10 Ways that the Big Tech Companies Can Shift Millions of Votes in the Midterm Elections Without Anyone Knowing.”
“These are not old-fashioned techniques,” he said, like mudslinging ads or untrue billboards and TV ads. “This is all clandestine, this is all invisible to users and all involves ephemeral content, which means it doesn’t leave a paper trail. And it’s all in the hands of just a couple of executives in the northwest corner of the United States. And it’s affecting not just people here, it’s affecting billions of people around the world… Something is wrong with this system.”