Google’s (or is it Alphabet’s?) moto is “Don’t be evil”. For the most part, they’re pretty benign. But what if they weren’t?
What if Google – or any major, powerful tech company for that matter – were capricious and malevolent, and wanted to change the course of an election for their own financial benefit? What if they wanted to undermine our elections, and possibly even wrest control over our democracy?
Well, here’s how they might do that. Hypothetically.
Google: You Searched For “Bernie Sanders”. Did You Mean “Jeb Bush”?
When you search Google, your query is passed into an algorithm that is as complex as it is opaque. Nobody outside of Google really knows how it works, and those who say they do are lying.
But we place a lot of trust in it. Almost 70% of all search queries go through it, and on face value we trust the results we get are fair, accurate and reliable. This reputation is why Google is the most used search engine, save for in Russia and China.
But what if Google was just as willing as they are able to interfere with search results, purely for their own political agenda.
What if they showed negative stories for some candidates, and positive stories for another?
There’s evidence that shows that could swing people’s decision process. A recent study by Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology took three groups, and provided them with a mock-search engine that returned results about the 2010 Australian general election.
One group was shown overwhelmingly positive stories about Julia Gillard, the Labor candidate. Another one was shown overwhelmingly positive stories about Tony Abbot, the Liberal-National Coalition candidate. The control group was shown a combination of positive and negative stories.
The results were stark. Those who had seen the negative stories were 48% more likely to vote for that candidate, despite their previous political bias.
This is just one example of a stealthy, surreptitious way in which Google could influence how we behave in the polling booth – if they wanted to.
Outlook: We Marked This Email From Hillary Clinton as Spam
Another system we implicitly trust is the anti-spam filtering technnology, built into Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo Mail, and others.
But much like the Google search algorithm, we don’t know how it determines what it considers to be spam, and what isn’t. These algorithms were built and are maintained in secrecy.
So, what would happen if one day, Gmail started putting emails from your chosen candidate into your spam folder, which most people are unlikely to check on a regular basis?
Would you notice? Would you be likely to be a less informed voter? Would you miss campaign rallies, and requests for donations?
Google: Remember To Vote! (If You Agree With Our Candidates)
Google probably knows you better than your parents do. It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s true.
Through their browser, search engine, email service and advertising network, they know a lot about you as a person.
They know your personal interests and passions. Your sexual inclinations, and your political outlooks. Through Android, they know where you live, and where you like to spend your time. With Google Pay, they even know what you spend your money on.
So, with that in mind, they can probably make a guess as to where you sit politically. If you spend all of your time reading Daily Kos and The Guardian, and subscribe to Bernie Sanders’s email newsletter, they can probably assume you’re likely to vote for Sanders.
But if you’re constantly reading The Drudge Report and Fox News, and follow @RealDonaldTrump (who is all your fault, by the way) on Twitter, they could likely deduce you plan to give The Donald your vote.
So, what would happen if they one election day they decided to remind Democrats to vote, or Republicans to vote? That would probably help turnout for one side or the other. Do you think that’d swing the vote?
Facebook: The All Important Timeline
The timeline is effectively the centerpiece of Facebook. It’s where you see the postings of your friends, and the people you follow. But like all the things listed above, it’s powered by an algorithm that was built in secrecy – one that users do not fully understand.
There’s a stark difference between Twitter’s feed, and the Facebook timeline. The former shows you each post, from each person and page you’re following. The latter shows you a selection of posts, determined by a number of factors.
But we trust it nonetheless.
What if Facebook decided to use its control to limit which political groups and figures show up on your timeline? Going further, what if Facebook used the timeline to show you content from other political groups, either through advertising, or by hijacking the accounts of living (and dead. Seriously, it’s happened) users.
Hypothetically speaking. Could that radically alter how you might vote?
A Disclaimer: This Is All Hypothetical
So, feel free to call me naive. I don’t think Google, Facebook or Microsoft have any ill will towards us all. I don’t think they’re evil, or want to subvert our democracies.
Larry Page? I think he’s kinda likable. I’d love to go for a beer with Mark Zuckerberg and talk about Internet drones.
This piece was a thought experiment to explore the power that these tech companies hold. Simply by using Google and Facebook, we give them a degree of power over us, and our lives.
Whether they abuse that or not is entirely up to them.
Over To You.
Do you trust Google and Facebook to not subvert democracy? Do you think they would? Tell me about it. Leave me a comment below, and we’ll chat.