By: Varun Hukeri – dailycaller.com – August 5, 2020
The appearance of top Silicon Valley chief executives last week at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on antitrust issues reflected a growing consensus of distrust towards the increasing economic and political power of Big Tech.
With digital and social media platforms serving as the main source of information and communication for most Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, their influence could even potentially influence the outcome of the 2020 election.
A poll released in July by Accountable Tech/GQR Research found that 85% of Americans thought big technology companies have too much power. A Pew Research Center survey in June further suggested that 72% of Americans thought these companies have too much “power and influence in politics.”
As Big Tech has grown larger, it’s also grown closer to the U.S. government. The development of these technology conglomerates has correlated with a sharp increase in lobbying and government relations efforts.
An analysis of federal filing records reveals that Big Tech spent nearly half a billion dollars in lobbying between 2010 and 2019, The Washington Post reported. Google spent $11.8 million in lobbying in 2019, Amazon and Facebook each spent roughly $16 million and Apple spent $7.4 million, according to CNBC.
This growth is likely the result of a growing number of antitrust probes and investigations into companies like Facebook and Google, CNBC reported. Big Tech has come under scrutiny due to myriad issues such as data privacy and market monopolies.
The pre-eminence of Big Tech in politics is largely due to the disruptive effect of the internet and social media on traditional forms of information and communication, according to Forbes. News organizations now rely on social media for outreach. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are used for political organizing and communication.
The ability for social media platforms to host and distribute large amounts of information creates a precarious situation for political entities. One concern among skeptics of Big Tech is the censorship mechanisms deployed by these companies in the digital space.
Twitter censored a tweet from President Donald Trump in May for “glorifying violence.” The tweet was in response to the riots that occurred in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death. A similar tweet posted by the official White House Twitter account was also censored.
Twitter flagged another tweet from Trump in June for alleged “abusive behavior.” The tweet in question was a warning to activists that they would be met with “serious force” if they attempted to build an autonomous zone in Washington, D.C.
Twitter also flagged tweets from Trump in May that criticized mail-in voting for its potential to produce voter fraud. Twitter said the move was part of the company’s efforts to enforce its civic integrity policy, further adding that Trump’s tweets “could confuse voters.”
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced a new update to Facebook’s user policy in June that included the creation of a “voting information center” to promote civic engagement.
Facebook has also reportedly taken a more proactive role in moderating political content. However, Zuckerberg told Fox News host Dana Perino in May he believes social media platforms “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth” and has pushed back against calls for more aggressive moderation of content.
But on Wednesday, Facebook reportedly removed one of Trump’s posts for the first time citing “COVID misinformation,” per the Washington Post.
Reports of a blacklist algorithm operated by Google has also generated concern about political censorship. A reported 97% of mobile searches and 86% of desktop searches go through Google’s search engine, according to data from the investment firm Omidyar Network.
Dr. Robert Epstein, a research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, has conducted extensive research on Google for several years and concluded in a 2016 study that the algorithm in Google’s search engine produced search result biases during the 2016 election.
Epstein stated in his testimony June 16, 2019 before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that the algorithm likely impacted undecided voters in a way that gave at least 2.6 million votes to then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
He mentioned in his testimony that he supported Clinton and had identified as “center/center-left” his whole adult life.
“In 2016, I set up the first-ever monitoring system that allowed me to look over the shoulders of a diverse group of American voters — there were 95 people in 24 states,” Epstein told conservative commentator Mark Levin during an interview in 2019.
“I looked at politically oriented searches that these people were conducting on Google, Bing and Yahoo. I was able to preserve more than 13,000 searches and 98,000 web pages, and I found very dramatic bias in Google’s search results.”
The study has been criticized by some for not being peer-reviewed or rigorously evaluated by other researchers, The New York Times reported. Other experts said the small sample size was difficult to extrapolate to millions of voters but Epstein said the statistical significance of his findings were high.
Epstein later developed a Search Engine Manipulation Effect model that was featured in academic publications. His model revealed that Google, Bing and Yahoo algorithms may have shifted 78.2 million votes towards the Democrats in the 2018 election. The study looked at 47,000 election-related searches and nearly 400,000 linked web pages.
An analysis report Epstein published in January 2019 also found that Google’s algorithm likely shifted 800,000 to 4.6 million votes on Election Day in 2018.
Epstein and Northeastern University Professor Ronald Robertson concluded that more than 25% of national elections globally were affected by Google, according to his testimony.
Epstein co-authored a paper in the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology which concluded Google’s “autocomplete” search suggestions could flip undecided voters. The paper used his Search Suggestion Effect experimental model and found numerous instances of biases in the “autocomplete” algorithm.
The research developed by Epstein and his colleagues lends credence to the idea that algorithmic biases in search engines have influenced the outcomes of the 2016 and 2018 elections by millions of voters.
The coronavirus pandemic has made digital infrastructure and communication all the more important for political campaigns and voters, which means that the influence of Big Tech can only increase.
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