A generation ago, cultural critic Neil Postman published the clever little book Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, Postman considers the rival dystopian visions of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley as articulated in their classic novels, 1984 and Brave New World, respectively. Orwell’s vision is that of the modern police state; it’s “Big Brother,” a place where technology is used as an instrument of oppression. Huxley, by contrast, imagined a technologically advanced society where we willingly surrender our freedom for pleasure, safety, and convenience. Postman concluded that it was Huxley’s, not Orwell’s, vision that is carrying the day.
Postman’s thesis is remarkably enduring. I heard ominous echoes of it at a panel discussion last month at The American Spectator’s annual Robert L. Bartley Gala in Washington, D.C. There, before a room full of journalists and politicians, Dr. Robert Epstein presented his jarring research on the brave new world Google is creating. Epstein is the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today and currently a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. Here’s a sample of what I found so disconcerting:
Google and Gmail are surveillance platforms. Google has no product other than you. They gather information about you and monetize it. They sell you.
That alone is food for thought. But Epstein is making a much more important — and chilling — point:
Google has positioned themselves to blackmail anyone. If you have used Google for 20 years, as most have, they have on average three million pages of information on you. That includes a massive amount of data collected without your knowledge via means you don’t know about. Did you know they have invested in DNA companies? That’s to get more information about you…. They’re collecting information about you not just on Chrome, YouTube, Gmail, and Google.com, but also in many ways you cannot see – for example, on millions of webpages that invisibly embed Google Analytics, or through the microphones Google secretly installed on home thermostats made by Nest, a company Google now owns.
Before you dismiss Epstein as a conservative crackpot conspiracy theorist, consider the fact that he is a well-respected academic with a Harvard Ph.D., that his endorsements come from the likes of B. F. Skinner rather than Alex Jones, and that he does not, in his words, “have a conservative bone in [his] body.” Furthermore, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, Google is moving into banking, giving them access to your financial information, and “Project Nightingale,” which, in addition to the newly acquired Fitbit, gives Google access to the personal health data of millions of Americans without them knowing it.
“This is not a conservative issue,” says Epstein. “It is an issue of freedom.”
This brings us to the heart of Epstein’s critique. With Google controlling 90 percent of the world’s online searches, the left-wing company is using that power to seriously influence search results on topics ranging from the environment to state and federal elections. According to Epstein’s research, 60 percent of all Google searches do not result in a click (i.e., an actual search): “This is because the person conducting the search finds an answer in answer boxes Google now shows above search results. People trust those answers as being true even when they are not.”
“[Google is] the gatekeeper of information,” Epstein says. “If they don’t want kids to know Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, they will suppress that search result or change the answers.… Through their search engine biases, they are influencing elections, not just here, but around the world. I lean left and supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. But I am speaking out because I love freedom and democracy. Google is a threat to both.”
Thinking the Lincoln remark a bit of hyperbole to drive his point home, I nonetheless decided to type the following into the Google search box:
“Was Abraham Lincoln a Democrat or a Republican?”
The misleading answer given in the autocomplete suggested search was “National Union Party.”
I then did the same at Bing.com. The answer (with search): “Republican.”
This is an example of Google’s power to influence, say, term papers. But do you begin to glimpse their power to influence elections? Epstein wrote to me, “Big Tech can shift 15 million votes in 2020. Google search results shifted upwards of 78.2 million votes (spread across hundreds of elections) toward Democrats in 2018.”
Google calls this manipulation an “ephemeral experience,” that is, an experience in which people are manipulated without realizing it and where there is no paper trail. Yes, while Democrats tilt at the windmill of Russian influence on U.S. elections, the real threat to free elections is domestic and a major contributor to Democratic candidates.
Epstein’s data tells the tale of the Google threat: “My experiments show that just by manipulating autocomplete search suggestions, Google can turn a 50/50 split among undecided voters into a 90/10 split with no one knowing.”
Epstein said to a gathering of optimistic Republicans at the Trump International Hotel in D.C., “You are kidding yourselves if you think a Republican can win in 2020. There is absolutely no way without reform.”
He then added, “If Big Tech companies aren’t stopped, democracy will be only an illusion.”
Welcome to Google’s brave new world.
Larry Alex Taunton is the executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation and freelance columnist contributing to USA Today, First Things, the Atlantic, CNN, and The American Spectator. He is also the author of The Grace Effect and The Gospel Coalition Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com.