On Thursday, the Daily Caller’s Peter Hasson reported leaked emails showing Google executives scheming to isolate conservative news sites in the wake of the 2016 election. Dr. Robert Epstein, a Ph.D. psychologist who focuses on search engine manipulation, warned that Google’s attempts to manipulate public opinion are more terrifying than the Chinese government’s attempts to control its citizens.
China’s government seems intent to implement George Orwell’s “1984” with facial recognition, data mining, a social credit system, and roving electronic “doves” to watch over citizens. Yet Epstein finds Google more terrifying, partially due to the recent leak.
“To me. [China’s manipulation] is scary, but people are aware of it. It’s done openly by the government. I think what is happening elsewhere in the world that’s being driven mostly by Google I think is much more dangerous, because it’s mostly invisible,” Epstein, whose research features prominently in the recent film “The Creepy Line,” told PJ Media Friday.
“There’s no transparency, there’s no accountability,” he added. “It’s a more ambitious kind of surveillance than that of the Chinese government.”
On Thursday, Hasson revealed a very damning post from Google engineer Scott Byer dated November 9, 2016. “This was an election of false equivalencies, and Google, sadly, had a hand in it,” Byer wrote. “How many times did you see the Election now card with items from opinion blogs (Breitbart, Daily Caller) elevated next to legitimate news organizations? That’s something that can and should be fixed.”
Byer went on to add, “Let’s make sure that we reverse things in four years – demographics will be on our side.”
Other Google employees disagreed and presented other alternatives to influence people.
Epstein, a Hillary Clinton supporter whose research suggested that Google’s pro-Clinton bias explained most of her vote lead in the popular vote, said the news confirmed his suspicions.
“This is another leak confirming things that some of us have suspected for some time,” he told PJ Media. “Of course it is disturbing that I and other people turned out to be right about Google, that they not only have enormous power to shift opinions and votes, but they’re aware that they have the power, they talk about using the power, and my own data suggests that they do in fact use the power.”
Epstein argued that bias impacts algorithms, even without a conscious attempt to influence people. “There is solid research showing that programmers have a bias of some sort, that bias ends up getting expressed in their code unconsciously. Even without deliberateness, we still will end up with algorithms that have biases embedded in them,” he said.
Yet in these cases, “We know that the bias is explicit. We know that. It’s impossible for me to believe that Google executives and employees are not deliberate in their manipulations.”
While Google employees do seem conscious of their ability to manipulate people by search results, and they do seem interested in using that for political purposes, that by itself would not make Google more dangerous than China’s “1984”-style surveillance system. When that bias combines with “Google Home,” however, Epstein’s claim seems rather plausible.
“Google is pushing hard to get people to put surveillance devices in every single room of their homes,” he told PJ Media. The surveillance device “can hear the sound of you brushing your teeth, so it knows when you’ve not done a good job brushing. It hears your kids arguing so it knows if your parenting skills are not up to par.”
“It can monitor your sex life … very easily,” Epstein added, forebodingly.
The company sells these products as ways to improve users’ lives — and they may indeed be very useful. But they also open the door to virtually unlimited surveillance, which can be used to find the most effective ways to manipulate public opinion on the most granular of levels.
“Most of the manipulations Google is using these days are very hard to detect, if not impossible,” the psychologist explained. “If they’re using statistical methods, it would be just about impossible for anyone to determine what they’re doing. They’re also personalizing the suggestions.”
Finally, “because this kind of content is ephemeral — transitory — you can’t know for sure what they’re showing people.”
“They have very strong political leanings, which I tend to sympathize with, but that’s beside the point,” Epstein said. “I don’t think a private company should have the kind of power Google has to shift opinions and votes without people knowing.”
“I don’t even care which candidates or which party they’re favoring, because I don’t know who they’ll be favoring tomorrow,” the psychologist added. “We have to keep in mind that Google has this power not just over Americans, but over 2.5 billion people in the world. It’s not just the U.S. at risk, it’s almost every country.”
Epstein is working feverishly to set up a monitoring system to keep an eye on online content. He argued that the only way to check the power of massive tech companies like Google is more independent tech.
“This is a methodology that needs to grow,” he told PJ Media. “It’s humanity’s only protection against big tech companies. We’ve got to have a worldwide ecology of passive monitoring systems.” He further insisted these systems must be kept out of “the hands of government or government agencies.”
In the 2016 U.S. election, his monitoring system captured about 13,000 searches. This year, it captured roughly 40,000.
“My guess is that Google and other tech companies held back in 2016. They didn’t expect Trump to win in 2016, they thought that was impossible,” Epstein said. “I suspect that in the midterms, they did not hold back. I suspect they were much more aggressive.”
Only with a variety of well-run monitoring systems would average people be able to check the power of big tech companies. “If these systems are in place and these companies are aware of that, presumably they would back off and start to behave in a more responsible manner,” he told PJ Media. “They’d be less tempted to impose their values on society at large.”
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