On the power of Big Tech to shape politics and culture, and its ethical problems

Introduction

Fake news on the internet and how to counter it, has been a frequently debated subject in the past years. Most governments’ strategies involve cooperation with social media platforms to stop fake news and disinformation. It is not always clear what this cooperation entails, given that the specific algorithms that social media platforms use to determine visibility of content, are private property of these companies. In practice, governments seem to tolerate the growing power of Big Tech as long as ‘populist’ content no longer goes viral.

For governments, this may be effective and practical, but utilizing – even emboldening – the huge influence of Big Tech corporations on the flow of information on the internet (and, in addition, public debates in real-life states) is ethically problematic. This is because this influence ultimately comes from a source devoid of democratic legitimacy.

Big Tech as the de-facto ‘government’ of the aterritorial internet

From its inception, the internet has been an aterritorial space that thrives through the free exchange of information across borders. At first, the internet was very decentralized, with a huge variety of websites people would visit for all kinds of purposes. With the rise of social media platforms this has changed. Internet traffic increased and became more efficient, allowing users to find their desired content through neatly organized, social media spaces such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This centralization had a major consequence. Previously, the internet had been aterritorial and mostly anarchist, a disorganized Wild West-like frontier of information. With the rise of social media the internet remained aterritorial, but it was no longer anarchistic: large social media platforms became the de facto governments of the digital space. At first, these platforms were proponents of the same free flow of information as the old, anarchistic internet. Absolute free speech was the norm: for example, up until 2015-2016 it was even possible for ISIS representatives to freely use Twitter, allowing journalists and regular internet users alike a unique window into the strange and shocking world of the terror Caliphate.

This changed drastically. The major social media platforms stepped up as ‘responsible’ governments, embracing the fight against extremism, disinformation and fake news as their duty. They did this in cooperation with national governments and supranational organizations such as the EU, who shared this mission. Gradually, the platforms grew accustomed to their function as de facto regulators of the internet and accordingly developed a more profound ideological profile. As the following examples illustrate, they became fixated on promoting liberal values and political candidates, while purposefully weakening political figures they deemed too conservative, nationalistic or populist.

On a technical level there are legal differences between the EU and the US; practically, however, we see the same liberal consensus on Big Tech emerge throughout the West. How the Trump situation was handled by the social media platforms is particularly telling. In January 2021, social media emancipated themselves by deplatforming a sitting US President and consequently banning the app Parler as a libertarian alternative to Twitter. This happened whilst the defense of ‘free speech’ has for cultural and historical reasons always been stronger within the US than in the EU. It is therefore safe to say that there is a new liberal consensus on Big Tech in the West since Trump’s electoral defeat.

Big Tech influences freedom of information

We increasingly consume news through online media, often through links on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to news videos and (free) articles from newspapers and magazines. Frequently used search engines such as Google Search also determine which search results come out on top if a user enters the search term ‘Elections 2021’, for example. Professors Nico van Eijk and Egbert Dommering, connected to the University of Amsterdam, already warned against the great influence of Google in an article titled ‘The New Censorship’ in 2006: “Just like in authoritarian regimes, people are always directed towards the same sources and opinions.” Today, as outlined in a 2019 White Paper titled ‘How Google fights disinformation’, Google increasingly determines for itself which information is newsworthy and reliable, using ‘sources with authority’ such as government agencies.

The conservative investigative journalism organization Project Veritas made a documentary that sheds light on Google’s power to influence public debate and to shape awareness of cultural and political topics. Footage from their documentary reveals that Google aimed to prevent the re-election of US president Donald Trump in 2020. In the documentary made by Project Veritas, which has since been removed from YouTube under Google’s authority, a Google insider says: “After Donald Trump got elected, Google did a complete 180° turn. Now they’re like ‘hey, there’s a lot of hate, and because there’s a lot of hate, misogyny and racism, that’s the reason Donald Trump got elected. And so we need to fix that. We need to start policing our users because we don’t like to have that outcome. We don’t want to have an outcome like that again’.”

In the documentary, Jen Gennai, the head of ‘Responsible Innovation’ at Google, says she realizes that the US state is starting to pressure Google, but they “won’t change their policies anyway”. She adds that left-wing Senator Elizabeth Warren “wants to break up Google into smaller companies. But that’s not a good thing because then you end up with many small businesses that don’t have the resources we do now, and it’s their responsibility to prevent Trump from being reelected. ”

This raises the question how much influence we want Big Tech to have over our public debates? Should it really be their job to decide what ‘authoritative content’ is and what classifies as disinformation? If you are a public platform, then you redistribute whatever content your users choose to upload, and whenever something is against the law, it has to be taken up with those users. But in practice social media employ algorithms to delete content before it is even visible to other users. One example is that a Dutch public historical archive was suddenly banned from YouTube after uploading footage about fascism during World War Two. A summary of the problems with said lack of transparency can be read here.

This is legally questionable and has sparked fierce polemics and hearings within US politics. Once a company allows social and political considerations to influence the visibility of content uploaded by users, a company is no longer a platform but becomes a publisher, and would then be subjected to other regulations. As testified by Dr. Robert Epstein, search engines also wield an enormous and questionable power over the visibility of politicians. This visibility is decided by algorithms that fall under company trade secrets.

The power of Big Tech reaches beyond the immediate political impact of information – for example the controversial decision of Twitter to initially not allow users to publish a controversial article in the New York Post about the Biden family days before the US elections – it even influences the long term development of culture.

Big Tech influence on culture

Chad Robichaux from the Christian Veterans Initiative ‘Mighty Oaks’ was faced with that painful reality. Google distinguishes between three categories in its advertising policy. Acceptable, Restricted and Unacceptable. The word ‘Christian’ fell into the category ‘Unacceptable’ next to ‘Counterfeit goods’, ‘Dangerous products or services’ and ‘Enabling dishonest behavior’. YouTube responded to the critical tweets. “We know that religious beliefs are personal, so we don’t allow advertisers to target users on the basis of religion. Beyond that, we don’t have policies against advertising that includes religious terms like ‘Christian’.”

Mighty Oaks immediately proved with screenshots that YouTube wasn’t telling the truth – they wrote: “We ran the exact same ad with the keyword ‘Muslim’ & it was approved but ‘Christian’ was not. Additionally, we’ve ran [online] ads with the keyword ‘Christian’ for years. This year alone we had 150,000 impressions on that word in our ads. As per your support line this is a new restriction.”

This confronts what was also expressed by the Dutch politician Jan Middendorp, member of the Dutch national parliament: “Not only can the EU make regulation for Facebook but it can also draw up rules about websites and the algorithms used on them. This will affect other trades as well, even shoemakers, and will soon be possible with one press of a digital button.”

From this we understand that companies and organizations depend on tech giants to funnel search terms to reach their target audiences. If those companies ban certain search terms, including religious ones, they thus exercise an astronomical power over culture and the economy. Because when there is no more money to be made with specific cultural expressions – if whoever pushes the button of the algorithms decides that – then it is practically the end for that piece of culture. It goes to show that whoever gets to the decide on the visibility of commercial activities, wields a tremendous power over the development of culture, because in order to survive, businesses will have to adapt to the standards and preferences of search engines. It is ethically problematic that such power should be concentrated in the hands of a single search engine.

Big Tech and its democratic deficiency

From a democratic perspective, this is frightening. It is not unrealistic that Big Tech will behave as a pseudo-government that decides what can and cannot be said in the public domain, given that tech companies already have more data on citizens than Joseph Stalin and Joseph Goebbels could ever dream of. Especially when tech companies are enabled by governments to do so, because unlike them, Big Tech is part of the commercial sphere and not subjected to democratic accountability as civic and public institutions are. Not only do we have a situation where the internet is increasingly being ideologically shaped by a de-facto Big Tech government that nobody had the chance to vote for, there is also the very real influence this non-democratic political force has on real-world politics.

Think of the German chancellor Angela Merkel, who was caught pressuring Facebook-CEO Mark Zuckerberg into making critical stories about immigration related incidents less visible. In the continental context this is particularly shocking, given that a massive harassment event took place in Cologne where authorities tried to cover up the involvement of refugees. If the social media push critical stories about immigration policy out of public perception, politicians will not have to confront those stories as much during election time. This makes it easier to present their policies in a favourable light. If the public debate is the portcullis of political decision making, and if this sphere of public debate is now a digital environment, then the ramifications of Big Tech policies on public political discussions are enormous.

Possibly, the bureaucratic institutions of national governments and supranational organizations have not yet recognized the danger in this because of their ideological alignment with Big Tech, as part of the new consensus previously outlined. It should not have to matter which politics one supports to break a lance for democratic accountability. In the end, voters should get to decide the political fate of their countries, not outside actors, particularly not if those actors are unelected corporate entities.

Conclusion

Instead of fighting fake news through more regulation and further pressure on social media platforms, governments should encourage the free flow of information on the internet, regardless of its veracity. It is not the duty of any government or corporation to tell people which content is right or wrong, no matter how good the intentions might be. What governments can do is educate people to think critically for themselves, for example by incorporating critical thought on the internet into education curricula. A citizenry capable of critical thought is a better weapon against disinformation than any amount of questionable censorship can ever be.

Dr. Sid Lukkassen is an expert in media analysis and political philosophy. He completed his Ph.D in 2017 at the Radboud University Nijmegen on the topic of ‘Representative Democracy and the Conditions of Communication’, published as ‘De Democratie en haar Media’. In June 2020 he published the article ‘Democracy and the Pre-Conditions of Communication’ in ‘Disinformation and Digital Media as a Challenge for Democracy’, part of the European Integration and Democracy Series.