By Nicholas E. Spinner.
Google and other Internet platforms, like Facebook have the ability to manipulate our minds and create a techno-totalitarian and techno-tyrannical society. This is the subject of an eye-opening new documentary, ‘The Creepy Line’.
Make no mistake, Big Tech is on its way to replacing your identity. Dr. Robert Epstein, Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, who features in the upcoming documentary The Creepy Line, has sounded the alarm bell for all who use Google and Facebook. That’s probably you.
The title, The Creepy Line, is culled from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s discomfiting revelation – a mea culpa, if you will – that “the Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line but not cross it.” Expressed by Schmidt in an oddly unguarded moment during a TV interview, according to Dr. Epstein, Schmidt knows full well that “Google crosses that creepy line every day”.
Ever wondered why an advertisement pops up on your screen, steering you towards a designer shoe sale at the same moment you’re purchasing your favourite stilettos?
Epstein explains. “The impact of search rankings on people’s thinking is truly mind-blowing. SEME [Search Engine Manipulation Effect] is one of the largest behavioural effects ever discovered, and it is almost entirely undetectable as a means of social influence, which makes it especially dangerous.” The key to SEME is the Google search algorithm, consisting of roughly 200 ranking factors, “the formula for which Google guards as zealously as Coke protects its secret formula,” Epstein emphasises. And the algorithm, Epstein has discovered – whether designed in such a fashion or because of an “organic” (Google’s term) process fueled by user search behavior, the algorithm is always biased in favour of one particular result, whether the item queried is toothpaste, laundry detergent, dog groomers, pediatricians, or, most ominously, elections and political candidates.
“The several studies I’ve done demonstrate that search rankings are an extraordinarily powerful form of the list effect. It’s bad enough that Google first filters the results, deciding which tiny fraction of the billions of Web pages out there it’s going to present to you, but then of course it ranks those pages for you. We’ve found that operant conditioning – what happens to rats in a ‘Skinner box’ [an experiment designed by iconic experimental psychologist B.F. Skinner in which rats are conditioned to reliably act in certain ways by applying to them rewards or punishments] – happens to people when they do a Google search. 50% of clicks are on the top two results, and 95% go to the top 10 items listed on the first page. And, it’s ingrained in us that higher is better, higher is true; so this synergy takes over, a ‘digital bandwagon’ effect, whereby the algorithm keeps pushing certain results more and more to the top because people like the results that they see at the top, and before long everyone’s on board with that pick.” Epstein is quick to point out that as ascientist, he doesn’t care about the intent of Google executives relative to the design and operation of the algorithm, doesn’t care if they’re abiding by their famous injunction, “Don’t be evil” – he only cares about its real-world consequences, its capacity to mold thinking and shape society in its own image.
Epstein further explains the astonishing power of SEME.
“When fine-tuned to optimise the masking of search results bias, SEME can make that bias practically undetectable, invisible [in a 2016 essay for Aeon, Epstein likened the overall effect of SEME to that of “Casper the ghost pushing you down a flight of stairs.”]. This has extremely powerful effects on elections. SEME can create anywhere from a 20% to 80% shift in candidate preference, depending on the demographic group targeted, and, with undecided voters, take a 50/50 split and shift it all the way to 90/10. Most frightening of all, my research indicates that Google has the power to flip upwards of 25% of national elections in the world.”
Moreover, Epstein has uncovered an even more disturbing phenomenon: through what he refers to as the “social proof” effect, the handful of people who are perceptive enough to spot bias in search results shift even further in the predicted direction; so, awareness that a list is biased doesn’t necessarily protect you from SEME’s power. When one sees results that affirm one’s view of things, one takes this outcome as public endorsement of one’s view, strongly reinforcing it.
Epstein believes that the potential for Google and other Internet platforms, like Facebook (collectively, “Big Tech”) to manipulate minds and create a techno-totalitarian and techno-tyrannical society – using SEME, content “curating” (of Facebook newsfeeds, for example), Facebook management-generated targeted messaging (a form of what attorney Jonathan Zittrain calls “digital gerrymandering”), “blacklisting,” or “shadow-banning” – is great enough to warrant careful monitoring and regulation, possibly even government regulation.
“Big Tech now has the ability to shift up to 12 million votes, and with the midterms [U.S. midterm election] coming up in November, the need to have safeguards in place is absolutely critical. What I’m saying is, with monitoring systems in place, I think these companies would be extremely cautious. Because [if they’re not], it could mean that they get shut down … or face an enormous fine. So the key is setting up what I call an ecology of passive monitoring systems. We built a system in 2016, a very successful proof of concept, and now we have to scale it up. And scaling it up is very, very, very expensive, so that’s what we are doing now — we are trying to figure out that part of it. We have to be very careful here not to set up entities which are themselves suspect in some way; they have to be beyond reproach, obviously. But, you know, it may come down to government regulation. I mean, ideally, Google, Facebook, and Twitter should be organised, regulated as public utilities: Why should they be the gatekeepers? Everyone should have equal access to the Internet. Government could compel Google to adjust its algorithm — mix up search results to suppress SEME, and restore the Fairness Doctrine [abolished in 2011] and apply it to Facebook so it would have to present both sides of an issue in the newsfeeds. However, government regulation could really backfire, serve as a barrier to entry into the space by small and start-up companies. It’s a profoundly tough issue, but a profoundly important one, and it must be addressed sooner rather than later – much sooner.”
In a talk Dr. Epstein gave at Stanford University in 2015, he concluded by asking the audience: “What if the mind-control machine is teaching us not to mess with the mind-control machine?” a decidedly modern – and vexing — reformulation of the Roman poet Juvenal’s plea “Who will guard the guards themselves?” But at least in those days, we knew who the guards were, and what, for the most part, they were guarding.
I concluded my discussion with Dr. Epstein by wondering aloud about the overall effects of human beings becoming so reliant on, so enmeshed with, computers, programming algorithms, and the Internet: Are we – literally – becoming dehumanised (or, “trans-humanised”)? My question was prompted by a 2015 essay he wrote for Aeon, “The Empty Brain,” which argues that the brain is not some form of computer.
“Well, yes, there’s a book that came out recently which I think you will love [Reengineering Humanity, by Frischmann & Selinger],” Epstein warmly proffered, considering the gravity of the topic. “This book presents the notion that because we are using these devices, we are becoming more and more machine-like in the way that we analyse the world and answer questions. But that is probably a really bad idea, especially for a kid. So I think you are on to something. I think there are lots of challenges to face, not just the one I focus on with insulation [from the offline world], but there are other challenges we face with the new technology. I have five children, and at one point I noticed one of my daughters, when she went to bed, literally had five electronic devices around her pillow. So whatever we think is going on, it’s not even a tenth of what young people are facing, the kind of world that they are growing up in, and it’s going to be so different than the world that we know. And I don’t think people are giving enough thought to this issue about the brain, and they are just not giving enough thought to what these technologies are doing to humanity.”
The Creepy Line airs later this month on Amazon.