The internal company briefing produced by Google, leaked to Breitbart in 2018, states that big techs such as Google and Facebook have been moving away from the “American tradition” of free speech. This move was due to a variety of factors, including the 2016 election. The same companies that once held free speech so sacred have preferred the European tradition of free speech, which values “dignity over liberty and civility over freedom.” Google leak in 2018 is just one of the myriad instances in which Silicon Valley uses the power of algorithms and data in ways that are partisan or even manipulative. The previous unfettered optimism about social media is now tempered by rising concerns over speech freedom, disinformation campaigns, and more. Democracy is built on the crucial assumption that citizens have access to reliable information and can use that information to participate in the public sphere by freely voicing their opinions and preferences. This article aims to discuss about how big tech is never neutral with its clear political reference/agenda, and the consequences of its partisanship on the American democratic system as a whole.
Most people today still think that social media are just public platforms where different opinions can be voiced, as major tech platforms claim to promise free speech to users. Along with this, most people consider the role of big techs such as Facebook and Twitter is to design algorithms that create and maintain that their public platforms. But as a matter of fact, big tech is never politically neutral as they have a clear political preference. To illustrate this argument, let’s discuss the 208 Google leak in greater details. The title of the 85-page briefing, “The Good Censor,” tells it all. Big tech such as Google and Facebook are undertaking a shift toward “good” censorship as a response to unwelcome political events, such as the 2016 election and the rise of Alternative for Deutschland in Germany. Four major reasons for this sudden shift are, according to Google Insights Lab, the fact that unregulated free speeches: (1) impacts trust; (2) incites criticism; (3) increases calls for regulation; and (4) breeds conspiracy theories.
These justifications might not necessarily sound partisan, however, massive evidence has shown that these causes are used in a partisan way. For instance, during the 2016 election, Google claimed that it filtered/suppressed negative autocomplete suggestions about every presidential candidate, including Trump. However, independent research from Dr Robert Epstein, a former editor in chief of Psychology Today, demonstrates that Google search results did indeed favour Hilary Clinton over all other candidates. Google, in response, dismissed Epstein’s research as nothing more than a conspiracy theory.
Besides Google’s filtering of unfavored political opinions, Facebook’s non-neutral force in electoral politics has also been a topic of interest for many researchers. For instance, Rebecca Rosen’s 2012 article, “Did Facebook Give Democrats the Upper Hand?” points out that Facebook’s get-out-the-vote message could have driven a substantial increase in youth voter turnout rate in the 2012 elections. Voters of this age group, according to Rosen, are more likely to support the Democratic party than other age groups. The research has also shown that a small interface or functional design by Facebook could have electoral repercussions, especially because of America’s candidate selection format in which smaller states have a disproportionate impact on the election outcome. Facebook has been accused by another study for distributing ads in a targeted manner on Broward and Dade counties during election periods. Partisan/non-neutral actions such as these are more alarming than just the violation of the integrity of democratic elections, as many writers such as Sasha Issenberg and Daniel Kreiss have suggested, there are broader concerns such as privacy, surveillance, and the psychological effects of social media on democratic participation. One of the influential politicians who realize the severity of the situation and urges for changes is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who argues for the breaking up of tech giants, who have “too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy.”
Tech giants are using the power of algorithms and data in ways that are detrimental to electoral democracy. Quoting Maja Adena, mass media is a double-edged sword depending on “who exercises control over media content and whether the extremists are banned from the media.”  It is important to note that it is extremely dangerous when the power to decide who these “extremists” are concentrated in the hands of a few tech giants, who have clear political agenda and preferences. It is worth studying whether, with a united will, society can stop such misuse of power and revive the early vision of technology-enabled democratic utopia. Meanwhile, the 2020 presidential election is around the corner.
(Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP)