Algorithmic Manufacture of Consent Threatens Informed Democracy

We’re not arguing for censorship; we’re arguing just take it off the page. Put it somewhere else. Make it harder to find.
 — Eric Schmidt

Censorship by Any Other Name

In a moment of unfortunate doublespeak, Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt uttered these words on the Fox Business Network in March. This was in response to questions pertaining to Google’s role in de-ranking sites which it claims contain inaccurate and/or extremist and hateful content. Professor Robin Andersen offers an insightful in analysis — which I encourage anyone reading this to read before continuing — of the decisions and machinations that have pressured companies like Google and Facebook into taking a more proactive role in pushing down certain kinds of content, which unfortunately is not limited to Nazi havens. Not least among these reasons is a self-serving “intelligence report,” which convinced not only Google, but Facebook, Twitter, and others to crack down on “fake news” and foreign propaganda, exposing their complete, and utterly predictable, naïveté regarding the propaganda systems in place at large United States. This comes as the Trump Administration is relentlessly attacking press freedom, including threatening some with decades in prison and forcing Russia Today (RT) to register as a foreign agent over a weekend. This, of course, reinforces the erroneous but common notion that foreign propaganda is more effective than domestic propaganda, and, specifically, that RT and Internet bots swung the election (as opposed to, say, one out of four black people having their voting rights stripped away in the Neo-Jim Crow swing state of Florida).

The Power of Gatekeepers

Since the Internet’s dawn, it has been considered a democratizing force for information exchange— the information superhighway — which, over time, has come to provide access to more information than is consumable by any human being. This can be, and should be, empowering. But precisely because of this information deluge, we need software to sort through it all and help us find what we need. For that, most people are largely at the mercy of algorithms designed by private corporations such as Google.

In theory, there are several options for search engines; in reality, most people currently use Google. This imparts to Google an enormous amount of power — power which the company whose motto is “Don’t be evil” has unfortunately used to bury independent news media. Google has succumbed to the same pressures and forces that lead to the systematic omission of crucial information from mainstream corporate news. It has, in fact, transformed itself into the ultimate propaganda weapon, by making it significantly harder to find such information, even for those who may be searching for it.

AlterNet posted a provocative image, showing its steep 64% crash in web traffic following the introduction of Google’s tweaked algorithm. Other sites, such as Democracy Now and the Intercept, have also seen huge declines in their visitors. These are reputable, careful independent news sites, not “fake news” — whatever that means — and Google is doing a grave disservice to democracy by de-ranking them.

Under pressure, Google has buried dissenting voices, which necessarily gives corporate media even more undue influence than they already have, despite the documented evidence — which grows by the day — of ways in which corporate media systematically ignore and distort the news, such as the US government’s participation in genocide in Yemen at this very moment. This, indeed, is the “manufacture of consent,” described by first Lippmann, and later evoked Herman and Chomsky. Downgrading Nazi material is understandable; doing so at the expense of non-corporate voices is outrageous. The truly ironic part of all of this is that it was corporate media, in its pursuit of sensationalistic stories to drive profits, which gave Trump unlimited coverage and played a larger role in his rise and ultimate election than any foreign bots could have hoped to. Now, these same information power centers are presumed to be the gatekeepers of reasonable coverage.

Reactively Amplifying Bias

In an ostensible attempt to correct for bias, Google has amplified bias, baking its own assumptions, and apparently the assumptions of the national security state that influenced them, into their ranking algorithm. As a result, independent media — AlterNet, Democracy Now, TruthDig, Truthout, etc. — have been de-ranked, in favor of corporate media, which are being billed as the gatekeepers of truth by the algorithm. This is analogous to a library that puts all of the independent authors under the library.

Twitter, along with Facebook, has also garnered criticism for silencing black activists and other dissidents, while producing embarrassing excuses for its refusal to take similar actions against several prominent white supremacists and fascists, such as the President of the United States, and those who retweet them. Twitter is famously lacking in diversity among its staff.

This has exposed the degree to which our information access is controlled by the decisions of a relatively small number of people —people not necessarily representative of those influenced by their products and probably unaware, like most citizens, of the ways in which propaganda works in a free society — under pressure from governments, determine what we do and do not see. Combined with recent legislation to destroy net neutrality, the Internet is being converted from a decentralized information nexus into a top-down propaganda apparatus.

If Google truly wants to avoid being evil and being a propaganda arm for the US government and the small number of wealthy companies and individuals currently engaging in an ever more brazen corporate coup d’état enabled partially by disinformation, they should resist the urge to silence independent voices online at all costs.