What images should appear when you Google “white couple”? Probably two people of European descent. If you search those words today, though, you’ll find almost exclusively black couples. The results are similarly skewed for “white man & white woman” and “white couple with children”. Try it. Strange, a bit annoying, and vaguely political – just imagine the reaction if a query for “black couple” turned up only whites. I suspect that wouldn’t fly at Google.
What results would you expect when Googling “American inventors”? Likely a mix of great innovators from our past and present, from a variety of backgrounds. Instead, Google tells us they’re almost all black. No Benjamin Franklin, no Samuel Morse, no Bill Gates. Without disrespecting Dr. Patricia Bath and her cataracts-surgery machine, the telegraph and personal computer merit a higher placement.
Somebody at Google is skewing the queries, in this case a form of digital affirmative action: conceivably another point scored in an endless matchup against “white supremacy,” whose presence at all turns is the greatest of progressive obsessions. The implication is that anything related to whiteness – even the telegraph – shouldn’t be searched for at all, and takes up “space” from the accomplishments of marginalized people. In both of the above examples, we receive a political indoctrination in lieu of sought after information. In the second one, we actually learn an altered version of history.
Any confusion about the leftward tilt of Silicon-Valley tech companies would have been put to rest after the sacking of dissenting Google engineer James Damore, or the defenestration of Mozilla’s CEO years before him, or the de-monetization of conservative YouTubers , or Mark Zuckerberg’s robotic flirtation with progressive politics. The employees at Google, Facebook, and Twitter are adherents of the same scornful progressivism as those at CNN, ESPN and VICE – so we shouldn’t underestimate their willingness to “bake in” their biases to our search queries, and justify their efforts in doing so. A stupid racial joke on Google Images is obvious (and meant to be), but it could become much more difficult to detect or prove.
Let’s say Google subverted the organic results for “Obama’s Foreign Policy”: you could receive results that bury Obama’s red lines in Syria, a history in which we never ceded power to Russia and Iran. “How is Trump doing on the economy” could give you economic indicators designed to dissatisfy. A “Reasons Hillary lost” query could route you to the infinite think pieces declaring all 63 million Trump voters bigots, or better yet, to visceral stories of hate crimes occurring during and after his election. Educated people would work around this bias, as we already do across media channels. But novice information seekers – and those of the next generations – are far more vulnerable.
Kashmir Hill, a journalist for Gizmodo, recounts exactly such a process of censorship when she dared to publish a piece criticizing Google itself. First, her then-employer Forbes faced pressure from the search engine to take down the offending article, with vague threats to starve them of web traffic if they didn’t comply. The cached version “was soon scrubbed from Google search results,” a fact Hill found “disturbing,” “unusual,” an “almost dystopian abuse of the company’s power”: “websites captured by Google’s crawler did not tend to vanish that quickly.” The offending material was disappeared. Cases of influencing searches both subtle and flagrant. Purging dissenters from inside its ranks. Who’s to say Google wouldn’t go further to disfavor views it doesn’t like?
George Orwell warned us in 1984 of a society in a constant state of re-creating history to dominate its citizens: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” With every search query, we hand over power, often unconsciously, to shape our thoughts. Each becomes an opportunity for indoctrination. In a world where every platform for progressive thought-making is exploited – from the kindergarten classroom to the pages of Teen Vogue – it’s a natural development that left-leaning tech companies too will shape us in their own image.
The bias would infiltrate other tech platforms, where some opinions are clearly more equal than others. On Facebook, a crackdown on “fake news” is unlikely to treat right-wing bogus with the same equanimity as liberal myth-making around Russian electoral interference.
On Twitter, conservative users already complain of a blue-checkmark bias: the platform awards reputability to any liberal hack with a smartphone but not James O’Keefe of Project Veritas (330K followers). Voices are stifled altogether with total bans, most famously alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulus. His supporters unloaded a racist tirade on black actress Leslie Jones, but is that really worse than the Women’s March glorifying a cop-killer to its five hundred thousand followers? Twitter can choose to be a cesspool or not, but to clean up one side only is an odious double standard.
Wikipedia, a key source of information for novices and experts alike, could selectively edit pages without anyone knowing. Web platforms could refuse to host opinions they dislike, as happened to the Neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer after the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville. With the distinction between “Nazi” and “Republican” being blurred by so many in public life, it’s easy to imagine mainstream conservative groups being similarly no-platformed. First they came for the actual Neo-Nazis, and then they learned there really weren’t that many of those…
Fine, say many conservatives, arms crossed. We’ll start our own search engines. We’ll have our own social networks. But the impulse for us to huddle together feeds a growing alienation from “the mainstream” – everything we see and hear. It’s an alienation that makes people doubt the existence of objective information, and by extension objective truths: every fact we’re offered, every voice we’re allowed to hear, comes from one side, so what could be true of what we’re told? The disaffection finds its human incarnation in the factless Right Wing reactionary: your aunt the birther, your neighbor the Pizza Gate crackpot. It has hollowed out the modern conservative intellectual movement.
The topography of our politics is as influenced by the course of time as our physical world is, and movements that sustain themselves bring in new adherents as others fall away. If we seek to continue living as we do – to conserve what is good – we must be able to reach both thinkers coming of age and converts to our worldview. Access to neutral facts and dissenting voices, to a private manner of constructing thought, is a lifeline in a world saturated with messages from the other side. Fundamentally, information forms ideas, and if certain ideas are not allowed – what Orwell called thoughtcrime – the information that leads to them will be stamped out.
Conservative thought is not facing a fatal environment on the free Internet yet. But the intensity and urgency of attacks are no doubt rising on those who express dissent from the progressive sacred truths: that to uplift marginalized people we must obliterate all vestiges of historical power; that every aspect of our society has been irredeemably tainted by oppression.
In the coming years, we will see the erosion of objectivity where we do our thinking, which is mostly over the Internet. It will come from the inside of our tech companies – as social engineering is codified, dissenters are purged, and everybody else joins up or shuts up – and it will come from the outside, with Twitter mobs, viral petitions, and a blizzard of media hits.
Republicans technically hold political power, but the ascendant movement in America is an increasingly puritanical progressivism. It threatens the safety of conservatives expressing mainstream opinions. That the fervor is spreading through the halls of our greatest tech companies – to the minds that control our minds – is a dire signal for all free thinkers.
Google plays strange games of race politics. Conservative voices are shut out or shut down. Our access to objective information becomes imperiled. Are conservatives prepared to be censored?