It’s no secret that corporations hold the power to shape American politics, but are we underestimating the level of power they have over certain demographics? Tech giants and social media sites, in particular, hold extraordinary influencing power—the 2016 election serving as a perfect example of this phenomenon.
Robert Epstein, researcher at the American Institute for Behavioral Research, conducted an experiment at the start of the 2016 American election, in which he used Google and Yahoo to search for political topics. Epstein’s results were intriguing, as he found that Google searches yielded twice as many pro-Clinton articles as Yahoo searches did.
Even more shocking? Blue state residents and men saw more pro-Clinton articles than women and people living in red states. Since the start of the experiment, Epstein has been studying what may cause this bias. He is primarily concerned that Google’s search algorithm was created and programmed in a way that intentionally ranked pro-Clinton articles ahead of any positive article about Clinton’s opponent, Republican candidate Donald Trump.
These algorithms have shown to be increasingly crucial in modern day news dissemination —as more and more Americans consume news from online platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, these algorithms determine which stories reach the American public’s eyes and ears.
In recent months, a topic of contention has been whether or not these companies have been manipulated by Kremlin-controlled operatives who allegedly attempted to create chaos within the 2016 American elections. However, the power of these companies goes beyond the election. These tech giants wield the power to influence what the American public does and doesn’t see. And in the modern political landscape, visibility makes all the difference.
“The social media companies are the gatekeepers,” said Frank Foer, former editor of the New Republic, who has authored a book on social media’s power. “Whatever choices these companies make to elevate or bury information is very powerful and will have a big impact on what people read.”
Conservatives have long been wary of social media giants and their influence, suspecting that these platforms discriminate against conservative content. While many have written off these accusations as nothing more than “conservative paranoia”, an emerging set of studies suggests that these concerns are not without merit.
Epstein, in his research, looked at over 4,000 election-related web searches on Google and Yahoo over the course of 25 days from mid-October up until Election Day. He found that pro-Clinton articles swamped pro-Trump news.
A separate study conducted by Nicholas Diakopoulos analyzed a series of Google search results from December 1, 2015. He searched for the names of all sixteen presidential candidates and discovered that Democrats, on average, had seven favorable search results among Google’s top 10. Republican candidates, meanwhile, had only 5.9 positive articles in the top ten.
Diakopoulos ran another study the summer prior to the 2016 election and found the majority of sources selected for Google’s news box were left-leaning outlets. The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post accounted for nearly 50% of Google’s news sources. Articles from Fox News, the only conservative news source among the 113 featured by Google during Diakopoulos’ study, only appeared approximately 1% of the time.
Google representative Maggie Shiels rejected the accusations of left-wing bias, claiming that the box’s algorithm picked up news across the internet with no particular regard to political party or ideology. The company, in an explanation on their website, goes into the details of the algorithm, saying it promotes articles based on “freshness, location, relevance and diversity.” But is this really true?
Analysts have looked further into Google’s operations over the years, gathering further information from patents the company has filed. These patents suggest that search engines may be tailoring results to an individual’s web history—promoting sites and story topics the user selects the most. Diakopoulos explained that people searching for positive news about Trump are more likely to be exposed to conservative news, while people who search for left-leaning topics will receive more liberal news results.
The press, however, has a large influence over these results as well. “If 70 percent of the news media is liberal, you can expect there to be some unequal results to come from a search engine,” Diakopoulos said. In this case, social media may not necessarily be biased, but instead reflects the bias of the left-leaning mainstream media.
And all of that’s just indirect bias. In terms of direct bias from social media companies, many powerful tech giants have faced accusations of heavily favoring left-wing news sources.
In May of 2016, several former Facebook employees revealed to technology blog Gizmodo that the platform regularly suppressed news about prominent Conservative figures and events, including Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The employees also confessed that stories from Conservative outlets, such as Newsmax and Breitbart, were dismissed in favor of left-wing coverage of the same stories.
Facebook denied these accusations, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg later invited sixteen Conservative leaders to the company headquarters for a meeting. Zuckerberg conceded that although he holds liberal beliefs, Facebook must be open to Conservative viewpoints if the site is intended to be an open marketplace of ideas.
Google and Facebook aren’t the only platforms that have been accused of liberal bias. In early October, Twitter blocked a campaign advertisement by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), claiming it included “an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong reaction.” In the ad, Blackburn said she helped stop Planned Parenthood from selling baby body parts.
These companies’ denials of bias are still complicated, however, by their executives’ perceived political leanings. Affiliates and employees of Alphabet Inc., a Google holding company, donated over $1 million to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Furthermore, the top 16 candidates who received donations from Alphabet employees were all Democrats.
Facebook has also donated heavily to the Democratic Party—throughout the 2016 election campaign, Hillary Clinton received a total of $478,000 from Facebook affiliates, while Donald Trump received approximately $4,665.
Some companies are more secretive about their political affiliations: in the infamous leaked Podesta emails, it was revealed that Google had loaned its jets to Clinton’s campaign staff on several occasions. The Obama administration also built connections with Google, where twenty-two former White House officials worked. Another study conducted in 2016 concluded that Google representatives attended White House meetings over once a week, on average, from the beginning of the Obama presidency until October 2015.
Some have said that with Trump’s victory, Google and Facebook have suffered a loss, as their left-wing cronyism has finally been exposed. Other Conservative pundits argue that these social media platforms can be valuable tools in the spread of Conservative ideas, if used skillfully. Brad Parscale, who ran President Trump’s campaign, said it was Facebook that helped Trump win the election. “I think Donald Trump won, but I think Facebook was the method—it was the highway in which he drove his car on” Parscale explained.
In their mission to promote left-wing ideas, these platforms are ultimately only hurting themselves and their cause. Do they expect the American populace to accept this prelude to outright censorship? As the gatekeepers of the world’s information, it is time for these social media platforms to open their eyes to reality: silencing Conservative voices will only make us speak up louder. And suppressing information will only make Americans hungrier for the truth.