Big Tech’s Greatest Threat “They leave no paper trail for authorities to trace. They are the perfect weapon for changing… the outcome of elections” by Robert Epstein
- “Ephemeral experiences”: You might never have heard this phrase, but it’s a very important concept. These are brief experiences you have online in which content appears briefly and then disappears, leaving no trace. Those are the kinds of experiences we have been preserving in our election monitoring projects. You can’t see the search results that Google was showing you last month. They’re not stored anywhere, so they leave no paper trail for authorities to trace. Ephemeral experiences are, it turns out, quite a powerful tool of manipulation.
- Are people at companies like Google aware of the power they have? Absolutely…
- In a national study we conducted in 2013, in one demographic group — moderate Republicans — we got a shift of 80% after just one search, so some people are especially trusting of search results, and Google knows this. The company can easily manipulate undecided voters using techniques like this….
- We have shown in controlled experiments that biased search suggestions can turn a 50‑50 split among undecided voters into a 90‑10 split, with no one having the slightest idea they have been manipulated.
- Unfortunately, people mistakenly believe that computer output must be impartial and objective. People especially trust Google to give them accurate results…. They have no idea that they may have been driven to that web page by highly biased search results that favor the candidate Google is supporting.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower did not talk about his accomplishments in his famous farewell speech of 1961. Instead, he warned us about the rise of a “technological elite” who could control public policy without anyone knowing. He warned us about a future in which democracy would be meaningless.
- What I have to tell you is this: The technological elite are now in control. You just don’t know it. Big Tech had the ability to shift 15 million votes in 2020 without anyone knowing that they did so and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace. Our calculations suggest that they actually shifted at least six million votes to President Biden without people knowing. This makes the free-and-fair election — a cornerstone of democracy — an illusion.
- I am not a conservative, so I should be thrilled about what these companies are doing. But no one should be thrilled, no matter what one’s politics. No private company should have this kind of power, even if, at the moment, they happen to be supporting your side.
- Do these companies think they are in charge? Are they planning a future that only they know for all of us? Unfortunately, there are many indications that the answers to these questions are yes.
- One of the items that leaked from Google in 2018 was an eight‑minute video called “The Selfish Ledger.” This video was never meant to be seen outside of Google, and it is about the power that Google has to reshape humanity, to create computer software that “not only tracks our behavior but offers direction towards a desired result.”
- How do we protect ourselves from companies like this?… You might have heard the phrase “regulatory capture” — an old practice in which a large company that is facing punishment from the government works with the government to come up with a regulatory plan that suits the company.
- When you are talking about, for example, “breaking up” Google, all this means is that we will force them to sell off a couple of the hundreds of companies they have bought…. the major shareholders are enriched by billions of dollars, and the company still has the same power and poses the same threats it does today….
- [W]e were, in effect, doing the same thing to them that they do to us and our children 24 hours a day. Imagine that we were, in effect, looking over the shoulders of thousands of real people (with their permission), just as the Nielsen Company does with its network of families to monitor their television watching.
- Imagine if these tech companies knew that they were being monitored — that even the answers they are giving people… were being monitored. Do you think they would risk sending out targeted vote reminders to members of just one political party? I doubt it very much, because we would catch them immediately and report their manipulation to authorities and the media.
- What can we do? In my opinion, the solution to almost all the problems these companies present is to set up large‑scale monitoring systems and to make them permanent — not just in the United States, but around the world. Because monitoring is technology, it can keep up with whatever the new tech companies are throwing at us, and however they are threatening us, we can get them to stop.
- I am envisioning a new nonprofit organization that specializes in monitoring what the tech companies are showing to voters, families, and children — protecting democracy and the autonomy and independence of all citizens. There might also be a for‑profit spinoff that could serve as a permanent funding source for the nonprofit. The for‑profit spinoff could provide commercial services to campaigns, law firms, candidates, researchers, and many others.
- And there’s another way to completely eliminate the threats that Google poses to democracy and humanity…. our government could quickly end Google’s monopoly on search by declaring that the database Google uses to generate search results is a “public commons,” accessible to all. It is a very old legal concept, and it is a light-touch form of regulation. It would rapidly lead to the creation of thousands of competing search platforms, each appealing to different audiences.