It is always eye opening to realize that over the years, many concepts we initially dismiss as crazy fringe accusations or conspiracy theories become more and more likely to the point they turn out to be the reality. A couple of years ago, the big internet companies or tech enterprises were seen as the bastion of free thinking and progression in the eyes of the many. Nowadays however, their policies and decisions may turn out to be more political than we first thought.
The internet, since its widespread adoption, became the ultimate expression of the freedom of speech and thought. It was first ignored by the masses and corporation but after its spread along with incredible success stories of the big tech companies, it truly showed itself to be the next great frontier of the day. As these companies grew in size, their power grew as well.
However, this was a new sort of power that failed to register in the minds of citizens and governments for a long time. Now, it has already become too big to fail. After all, hegemonies of companies such as Google and Facebook are almost impossible to break without extreme government meddling. These companies, with their financial power, can bankroll candidates for a generation. Yet, they already have a much more effective tool in their arsenal: A monopoly on information and discourse.
On the other hand, just because these companies have the means, does not mean they have the motivation to shape political discourse according to their agendas. After all, they are there to make money at the end of the day, not distribute pamphlets. However recent events show that politics of the employees and managers of the company can very well gave way to ideological decisions down the line.
Before going on, there is another matter to consider as well. Even if the companies such as Google and Facebook have no interest in shaping political discourse, the enormous amount of personal data collected by the tech giants can be used by third parties to all sorts of purposes. I'm sure many of you still recall the scandals surrounding Cambridge Analytica. For those who do not, let me summarize with an excerpt from a previous Reader's Corner article:
"The scandal started with a sizable number of documents belonging to Cambridge Analytica making its way to the media outlets such as the Observer, the Guardian and the New York Times. Coming after a long string of allegations about a Russian tampering in favor of Donald Trump in the United States' presidential elections, the main focus of early coverage was that in the U.S. On the other hand, Britain was another matter entirely, as it also had an unlikely result of its own EU referendum similar to Trump victory. Cambridge Analytica also had dealings with Brexit referendum, more specifically the leave campaign. By now, the scandal already was shaping up to be one of the biggest in the recent memory, but it did not stop there. An undercover investigation ran by Channel 4 News, resulted in a video where Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, boasted to undercover journalists how they were able to use bribery, seduction and so forth to entrap targeted politicians in order to influence elections. Nix was then suspended but the damage was already done."
Cambridge Analytica was able to operate with the assistance of a vast amount of data collected by Facebook. It resulted in a United States Senate hearing for Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Yet the hearing itself was quite lackluster with ineffective questions and even more evasive answers. However, at the end of the day, those who prioritized their privacy on the internet were vindicated after years of being called as conspiracy theorists. With the right tools, personal data was effective enough to change the course of countries.
Watching the watchers
We were still in the realm of problematic third party usage however. That could be solved with a tight control implemented by big tech companies when deciding where to sell the collected data. But that means nothing when the tech company itself might be doing the social engineering themselves. They are after all both the vault and the keyholder. And nothing stops them from tweaking here and there.
Until recently, this line of thinking was also labeled as conspiracy theory by a large number of the population. After all, why would Google care whether you voted for this person or that policy? It turns out, they care quite deeply according to a recently leaked internal video of the company.
Leaked by Breitbart, an American news website, the news article titled, "LEAKED VIDEO: Google Leadership's Dismayed Reaction to Trump Election," includes several of the higher-ups at the Google such as co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, CEO Sundar Pichai, CFO Ruth Porat along with VPs Kent Walker and Eileen Naughton. In the video, speakers show clear dismay over the election victory of Donald Trump along with possible actions that can be taken, criticism towards Trump voters and so forth.
Following the leak, those who were part of the Trump campaign along with conservative voices in the United States criticized the video, saying that it showcased the Google's bias.
Google in turn, released the following statement in response to Breitbart's request for comment:
"At a regularly scheduled all hands meeting, some Google employees and executives expressed their own personal views in the aftermath of a long and divisive election season. For over 20 years, everyone at Google has been able to freely express their opinions at these meetings. Nothing was said at that meeting, or any other meeting, to suggest that any political bias ever influences the way we build or operate our products. To the contrary, our products are built for everyone, and we design them with extraordinary care to be a trustworthy source of information for everyone, without regard to political viewpoint."
However, conservative views do not count towards diversity or freedom of speech it seems, considering that Google fired James Damore, one of its engineers following his internal memo titled, "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber." Earlier this year a lawsuit was filed against Google with an allegation that company managers kept blacklists of conservative employees.
Google is not alone in this either because during the Zuckerberg's Senate hearings, Texas Senator Ted Cruz focused on the issue during his questioning of the Facebook founder. Zuckerberg's answer acknowledged the problem in a somewhat evasive manner.
He said, "I understand where that concern is coming from because Facebook and the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place."
Motive and opportunity
So, let's sum it all up. We have an echo chamber in favor of a single ideological group. We have a near monopoly in an industry that can be considered as the most powerful in the world. That means there is a mean and there is a motive. It would be highly unlikely if the ideologies shared by workers, managers and owners of a company did not bleed into their product, especially if the said product is so much malleable.
So, is it any surprise when countries try to control their own narratives without surrendering it to whims of Silicon Valley? European Union is on track to put a stop to it when it comes to information gathering and I don't think it will stop there. I also vividly remember when Turkey was criticized internally and externally when the authorities blocked Twitter after the company failed to meet its demands. Back then, these tech companies were hailed as the bastion of free speech while those skeptical of them were branded as conspiracy theorists. It seems that history once again showed that pessimists were right.
Thankfully we are not in the realm of absolute dystopia when it comes to the actions of the big tech companies. Afterall they can very well drop the carrot and get out the stick, in the form of blackmailing people with their data collected over years of internet usage.