Especially if the subject matter is new to you, Robert Epstein’s relatively short essay, “The new mind control,” may be the most important thing you read this month. Investigating the effect that search engine rankings could have on voters, Epstein’s research team found the following, in India:
Participants were randomly assigned to three search-engine groups, favouring, respectively, Gandhi, Kejriwal or Modi. As one might expect, familiarity levels with the candidates was high – between 7.7 and 8.5 on a scale of 10. We predicted that our manipulation would produce a very small effect, if any, but that’s not what we found. On average, we were able to shift the proportion of people favouring any given candidate by more than 20 per cent overall and more than 60 per cent in some demographic groups. Even more disturbing, 99.5 per cent of our participants showed no awareness that they were viewing biased search rankings – in other words, that they were being manipulated.
That is, if Google wanted to swing an election (which isn’t a crazy suspicion to have), it could have a decisive effect. Of course, you’d have to adjust it downward to account for outside information that people get over the course of an election season, but you’d also have to adjust it upward to account for the months on months of manipulated search results. You’d also have to adjust it upward to account for Google’s extensive profiles of its users and its ability to target those who are most critical or most malleable.
More broadly, the possibility can actually be much scarier. Imagine if the company manipulated other media such that even the themes of online games were biased. Of course, taking that intellectual step, we see that this isn’t really anything new. I haven’t investigated the numbers, but for the past half-century, it sure seems that the villains in pop culture stories have been disproportionately white, male Republican businessmen. That creates a cultural deficit for anybody of that profile attempting to win over other people on a large scale, whether for business or for politics.
Epstein emphasizes the importance of competition (so attempts at manipulation cancel each other out), but on the larger scale, it’s commonplace to observe that progressives politicize everything, and competition is only helpful to the extent that the competitors are promoting different ideas. Progressives have also led a sustained attack on alternative sources of ideological input, such as the family and religion.
Epstein’s findings are frightening and there’s no simple response. From the individual’s perspective, one cannot emphasize enough the importance of gathering information and developing one’s worldview through a wide variety of sources in multiple media, often seemingly unrelated to particular politics or policies. From the perspective of those wishing to have an effect in the world, I keep finding myself back at the conclusion that we must start small and local, with real personal interactions.