Google on Your Shoulder

Article by Robert Epstein, Ph.D.

Unfortunately, Sourcefed posted their video on Google-owned YouTube — what were they thinking? As views of the video rapidly approached the million mark, Google blocked access to it.

Impossible, you say. Isn’t Google’s company motto: “Don’t be evil?” Sorry, but Google officially dropped that motto in 2015. As I said, you haven’t been paying attention.

Fortunately, the three-minute version Sourcefed posted on Facebook — which, alas, cut out all the references to my research — survived Google’s censorship and soon passed 25 million views.

That video inspired me to begin conducting experiments on search suggestions, which led to my discovery of the Search Suggestion Effect or SSE. Those experiments have revealed a number of disturbing things about search suggestions, among them:

(a) One of the simplest and most effective ways to use a search engine to shift opinions or votes is to suppress negative search terms for the candidate or cause or company you support, while allowing negative search suggestions to appear for the other candidate or cause or company.

(b) This shift occurs because of a well-known behavioral effect called “negativity bias” — also known as the “cockroach in the salad” effect. Negatives draw lots of attention and thought. That little cockroach in the middle of that big salad ruins the whole salad, does it not? When it comes to search suggestions, we learned that a negative search term can draw between 10 and 15 times as many clicks as a neutral or positive term. So a suggestion like “Donald Trump racist” will draw a lot more traffic than a suggestion like “Hillary Clinton crime bill,” at least for undecided voters, and those are exactly the voters Google wants to influence to tilt an election. That’s why suppressing negatives for your favorite candidate can shift so many votes.

(c) When we manipulate people by using biased search suggestions, people have no idea they’re being influenced. Manipulations that people can’t see are extremely dangerous, because when people can’t see a source of influence, they mistakenly conclude they have made up their own minds.

(d) Like bias in search results, answer boxes and newsfeeds, search suggestion manipulations are what Google insiders call “ephemeral experiences” — that is, fleeting experiences that impact users and then disappear, leaving no trace. In other words, authorities can never prove that SSE has been used on a large scale. There is no way to go back in time to see what search suggestions, search results or newsfeeds people were being shown. And Google employees know that. That’s why I developed monitoring systems — to preserve those ephemeral experiences. In 2016, I preserved 13,207 election-related searches on Google, Bing and Yahoo, along with the 98,044 web pages to which the search results linked. In 2018, I captured more than 47,000 searches and nearly 400,000 web pages. Once you capture such content, you can look for bias or censorship, and you can quantify it.

Over the years, I have been discovering, studying and quantifying a number of new forms of influence like SSE, every one of which is controlled exclusively by Big Tech companies. Unlike billboards, television commercials and ads posted on Facebook by election campaigns or Russian agents, these new forms of influence are both invisible and noncompetitive. If Facebook or Google wants to flip an election, there’s nothing you can do about, and, at least in the U.S., there are no laws or regulations forbidding it.

In the 2020 presidential election, I’ve calculated Google-and-the-Gang can shift 15 million votes — more than enough to select the next president. And over the past year, whistleblowers from both Google and Facebook, along with leaked videos and documents from Google, have made it clear these companies will not allow Trump to be reelected.

I’m not a Trump supporter. I’m not even a conservative. But I believe strongly in democracy, and the more I’ve learned about Big Tech companies, the more outraged I’ve become by the power they wield and by the abject failure of our leaders to constrain that power.

People trade security for convenience. Anyone who has ever used a password or flown since post-911 knows that. So how much will we pay Google for making our lives easier?

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