Is it still possible to stop ‘Big Tech’ from killing democracy?

Over the last decade, many influential people have wondered whether “Big Tech” and democracy can coexist. They have included Stanford legal scholar Nathaniel Persily, distinguished journalist Thomas Edsall, and Robert Reich, who served as secretary of labor under President Clinton.

The latest take on the issue is an engaging book by Jonathan Taplin, former director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California and, in earlier manifestations, tour manager for Bob Dylan and a film producer for Martin Scorsese. The subtitle conveys a quick overview: “How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.”

“Move fast and break things” — Taplin’s title — was, at least until 2014, the corporate philosophy of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Taplin interprets that philosophy liberally and applies it to several Big Tech moguls, especially PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel; Google co-founder Larry Page; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In its original use, the phrase described the rapid deployment of innovative software projects. But to Taplin, it means something much darker: to replace all the failing systems of society with technological systems controlled by benevolent billionaires.

Once these new systems are in place, Taplin says (quoting Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari), “humans will lose their authority, and humanist practices such as democratic elections will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.”


He reports, accurately, that Google now dominates five of the six billion-user online markets — browsers, video, mobile, search and maps — and that Facebook dominates the only other such market — social media. He also asserts that some of the Big Tech execs have megalomaniacal ideas about the duty they have to save the world while becoming even more obscenely rich, much like the supermen they admire in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

But Taplin seems unaware of the immense powers these new supermen are actually wielding. Since 2013, my research team and I have been studying new forms of influence the Internet has made possible that are unprecedented in human history. We have not been studying “fake news,” which is a very visible and old form of influence that mainly serves to confirm the beliefs people already have. And no, we have not been studying how negative messages can spread like wildfire through social interactions — also a very old and visible form of influence.

The impact of such mechanisms is trivial compared with the new techniques, such as the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME), which Taplin mentions. Ronald Robertson and I discovered SEME in 2013, showing that biased search results can invisibly shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by between 20 and 80 percent. But SEME is only one of four powerful new forms of influence my colleagues and I have discovered in recent years, and I’m sure there are others, with new ones coming soon. New forms of influence like SEME are now affecting the decisions of billions of people every day without their knowledge.

The Big Tech oligarchs are well aware of their new powers. As Google’s Eric Schmidt said onstage a few days after the November 2016 election, “How people get their information, what they believe, what they don’t, is, I think, the project for the next decade” (click here for the video). And evidence is mounting that they are actually using these tools.

As we recently reported, in 2016, Robertson and I recruited a Nielsen-type network of field agents who allowed us to track their election-related searches for nearly six months before Election Day. Based on the 13,207 searches and 98,044 web pages we captured using this new monitoring system, we found that Google’s search results were biased toward Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIntel Dem decries White House 'gag order' after Bannon testimony 'Total free-for-all' as Bannon clashes with Intel members Mellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2) MORE in all ten of the top search results over most of this period — enough, perhaps, to have invisibly shifted more than two million votes.

I’m now working with colleagues from Princeton, Stanford and elsewhere to expand the monitoring system so the manipulative shenanigans of Big Tech companies can be continuously monitored on a large scale. Exposing online manipulations might finally force Big Tech companies to be accountable to the public and might even save democracy.

This brings me to my one gripe about Taplin’s book. Toward the end of this disturbing tale of greedy billionaires, he finally gets to his solutions: Facebook and Google, he says, must “alter their business model,” although he has no idea how to make this happen. Anyway, he says, maybe we can build a “parallel structure” of “nonprofit distribution cooperatives” that will once again allow creative artists to earn a decent living.

Seriously. That’s it.  That’s how this illuminating book ends. Whatever happened to saving democracy?

To Mr. Taplin I say: How about joining my colleagues and me in building a worldwide monitoring system that will force Big Tech companies, now and in the future, to behave responsibly?

Robert Epstein (@DrREpstein) is senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, California. He holds a PhD from Harvard University, and has published fifteen books on artificial intelligence and other topics. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.

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