‘Big tech’ plays a huge and ever-expanding role in our lives. Without a thought, we now trust platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter to inform us about the latest trends in culture, the products we want, and the news stories that matter.
But over the last year or so, evidence has been mounting that big tech is biased. Disgruntled employees are leaving Silicon Valley with stories of systemic prejudice. Organisations have formed, claiming that the companies we trust are using their power to silence conservative viewpoints and favour progressive ones.
Could it all be true?
I first became aware of this issue not through news stories but through my own experience. I began a blog back in 2014. Like many bloggers, I’ve since worked hard to increase my readership and visibility, relying mostly on Facebook for traffic. I’d been seeing great progress—until around a year ago, when my stats began to stagnate.
Maybe the explanation is simple: I’ve become irrelevant. As I’ve pondered this, it seems an unlikely reason, given that in the same period I’ve had many articles published by websites with readership in the tens of thousands.
Ultimately I can only speculate about causes, since big tech companies are tight-lipped about their techniques. But in May this year, something ominous happened. A close friend shared one of my articles, only to be told by one of his Facebook friends:
I just posted this to a Christian Group Page I am a member of and received a warning from the Facebook Admin for posting inappropriate content.
What was so evil about my article that it violated Facebook’s ‘community standards’? Well, in advance of Australia’s federal election, I explained that Christian values can be found on both sides of politics—but given Labor’s policy platform this year, I couldn’t in good conscience vote for them. That’s all. Read it here.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard of ‘conservative’ content being censored, so I decided to do some research. What I discovered about big tech’s track record was worse than I’d imagined. Here is just a sample.
The first big story begins in mid 2017. It centres around Google employee James Damore who sent an internal memo highlighting what he called Google’s ‘ideological echo chamber’.
The company, he complained, was guilty of ‘reverse discrimination’ against conservatives, white people, and men. In response to his complaint, Google fired him.
Damore is currently pursuing legal action against the big tech giant.
A year later, it came to light that Twitter was using a technique called ‘shadow-banning’ to make prominent Republicans less visible on their platform. When this blatant bias was exposed by VICE News, Twitter adjusted their platform overnight.
The next company to show cracks was Facebook. The following month, Brian Amerige, a senior Facebook engineer, made a post on the company’s internal message board with the title, “We Have a Problem With Political Diversity”.
We are a political monoculture that’s intolerant of different views. We claim to welcome all perspectives, but are quick to attack—often in mobs—anyone who presents a view that appears to be in opposition to left-leaning ideology.
PragerU’s videos focus on America’s founding values, and they’ve been viewed online over 2.3 billion times. But currently over 100 of their videos—or a full 10 per cent of their video library—are flagged as ‘restricted’ on YouTube, making them difficult for young people to access.
On watching any of their restricted videos, it’s difficult to see how they could qualify as ‘inappropriate’ for younger audiences.
In April, the highly successful pro-life movie Unplanned had its Twitter account suspended. After public outcry, Twitter restored the account, but with almost all of its 200,000 followers removed, and other users unable to follow it.
Around the same time, Google listed the movie as ‘propaganda’. Soon after, the search engine reported that they’d fixed the issue.
Yet more happened in May of this year. In an ironic twist, Michelle Malkin, a high-profile author and commentator, was censored on Facebook for protesting the censorship of two other conservative figures, Laura Loomer and Gavin McInnes.
In her post, she wrote:
They are banned from Facebook and Instagram for exercising their free speech—while violent jihad groups are allowed on these platforms to spread their murderous poison… I do not know how much longer it will be before I am next.
She was next. Facebook removed her post, saying that it was a violation of, yet again, their ‘community standards.’
In May this year again, a study conducted by Northwestern University found that 86 per cent of Google’s top news stories over the course of a month came from a narrow band of left-leaning news sites. CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post appeared most often in these searches.
This came after a separate study revealed that 90 per cent of political donations by Google employees had gone to Democratic candidates.
Just last month, Google software engineer Mike Wacker was fired after he criticised the company’s anti-conservative bias in a cable news interview.
He’d previously written a controversial open letter describing ‘outrage mobs’ at the company who:
[W]ill hunt down any conservative, any Christian, and any independent free thinker at Google who does not bow down to their agenda.
[M]edical misinformation and conspiracies that turn individuals and facilities into targets for harassment and violence.
Earlier in the year, users on Pinterest had been complaining of difficulty pinning Live Action’s content on their pinboards. The reason for this became clear when Eric Cochran, a software engineer from Pinterest, blew the whistle on his own company. He revealed that Pinterest had secretly placed the pro-life group on a list of banned pornography websites.
When Pinterest learned of this, they responded in the most inglorious of ways, by having security escort him from the building—making it clear that he’d been fired.
In what has been the most widely-reported revelation of big tech bias, last month a senior Google executive was caught on an undercover video. In the video, she suggests that the search engine giant hopes to stop “the next Trump situation” in the upcoming election.
Jen Gennai, Google’s Head of Responsible Innovation, was responding to the idea that Google should be broken up into smaller, less powerful, companies. She was filmed saying:
Smaller companies who don’t have the same resources that we do will be charged with preventing the next Trump situation… a small company cannot do that…
We all got screwed over in 2016… the people got screwed over, the news media got screwed over, like everybody got screwed over so we’ve rapidly been like, what happened there and how do we prevent it from happening again.
The footage, uploaded to YouTube, was quickly removed, with YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, citing its privacy guidelines.
Following the revelation, Google of course denied that they are working to alter the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Perhaps some of these accounts are tainted by exaggeration, half truths, or even genuine mistakes. But it seems unlikely that they can all be explained in such a way. As many have pointed out, those affected almost always seem to be conservative personalities and ideas.
What’s concerning is that the stories I’ve retold here have only come to light because the people affected were high-profile enough to matter to the media. My story was untold until now: doubtless there are many more everyday people like me falling victim.
This leaves us with one lingering question: who will be next? Based on how quickly big tech bias has accelerated in the last year, it seems to be a question of when and who, not if.
Many who discuss this issue contend that since social media and search engine companies are private enterprises, they can choose who and what takes up space on their platforms—so this isn’t really an issue of free speech.
There is merit to this perspective. But it’s also true that these companies now function in a very similar way to the utilities we use daily, like electricity, roads and gas. Intended or not, Facebook, Google and Twitter are now significant gatekeepers of the internet—and therefore, culture and communications.
As such, when these companies draw lines as they surely are entitled to do, they should apply rules consistently, regardless of politics—and they should do so with the lightest possible touch.
Surely people are best served when public spaces, including online ones, are a battleground of ideas, not a battleground against ideas.
Until something changes, it’s likely that many progressive voices, unaffected by big tech bias, will deny that any bias exists, and that free speech isn’t under threat.
When I hear this, I will simply recall the mantra I’ve heard from progressive circles for years now: privilege is invisible to those who have it.
Kurt Mahlburg is a teacher and a freelance writer. He blogs at kurtmahlburg.blog. He has also been a pastor, studied architecture, has lived for two years on a remote island in Indonesia, is fluent in several Indonesian languages, and among his other interests are philosophy, history, surf, the outdoors, and travel.
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