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It’s impossible for Google and Facebook to be politically neutral

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As you may or may not be aware, the British people are heading to polling stations today to vote on who will govern them for the next few years. It’s an important day for me, as a European living and working in a country that’s decided to decouple itself from the European Union, but it’s also deeply fascinating from a professional perspective because of what it illustrates about the internet’s growing influence on everyday life. The way British people vote today will be influenced, in large or in small part, by the actions and decisions of people many miles outside of the UK: those Silicon Valley executives in charge of Google and Facebook’s massive online empires.

On the surface, neither Facebook nor Google has been politically active in this campaign. Both companies are intensely conscious to maintain an apolitical front and cooperate with whoever is in government — as was amply demonstrated when they sent senior envoys to Donald Trump’s tech executive roundtable. But look at the effect of Google and Facebook’s actions and omissions, and you’ll see a distinct political dimension, whether it’s deemed intentional or not.

When Facebook puts out a UK-wide reminder about the election to its members, and when Google promotes a #PowerToDecide YouTube compilation that encourages young Brits to get out and exercise their democratic right, both of these actions appear to be in the service of enhancing and strengthening democracy. And they are. But consider that younger people in the UK skew heavily to the left, and the more of them that actually turn out and make the effort to vote, the more likely it is that the Labour party will secure an unlikely majority and take control of the UK’s legislative and executive branches of government. Nudging the youth of Britain out of political apathy is effectively a Labour-favoring move.

The UK version of Google.com today leads, appropriately, to a ‘uk general election 2017’, surfacing the latest news coverage of the polling and pointing toward some live blogs from the likes of the Guardian and The Mirror. Again, all quite appropriate. But higher voter turnout in the election, which this Google Doodle stimulates, is another Labour-favoring effect. If you doubt me on this matter, check out this Channel 4 FactCheck analysis of whether or not rain on election day swings the votes one way or another — it notes that right-wing voters tend to be firm in their beliefs and consistent in their turnout, whereas lefties are a bit more susceptible to a “last straw” effect where it wouldn’t take too much to get them to skip voting altogether.

Put yourself in the shoes of a young voter, full of youthful idealism — which political leaders like the United States’ Bernie Sanders and the United Kingdom’s Jeremy Corbyn embody — but lacking the conviction that your vote will count. What if your favorite YouTuber suddenly surfaced on your screen imploring you to go discharge your democratic duty after finishing off your Shreddies? Wouldn’t you do that for them? Of course you’d brave a bit of rain and a short walk just to know you were on the same page as the person you admire.

But beyond Google and Facebook’s well-meaning efforts to get out the vote, there are plenty of other ways in which these two internet giants can affect an election.

In Facebook’s case, we’ve seen masses of coverage regarding the proliferation of fake news about the 2016 US election in its news streams, which is believed to have been fuelled by Russian propaganda trolls. Facebook’s algorithms fanned the most inflammatory disinformation around the world, because they’re more concerned with serving something pertinent to a person’s interests and beliefs than something verifiably factual. Many of its users would then repost those maliciously false stories, failing to check the source of the allegation in the midst of their outrage.

As to Google, the company that relies on algorithms more than any other, even a small tweak in its selection filters could skew the tenor of information that people see about an election. If Google’s idea of minimizing bias is to expose every side of a debate — even unmeritorious ones like, say, Kyrie Irving’s argument that the Earth is flat — its users will see one set of news results relating to an election. Alternatively, if Google prioritizes the most factual reporting, it’s likely to ignore such spurious claims and give a distinctly more scientific flavor to its search and news results. These choices might ultimately be executed by an algorithm, but there’s still a human at the controls.

And even beyond the two giants, there are things like Twitter’s (mostly irritating) In Case You Missed It module, which this morning served up the above pretty little tune from Pink Floyd lead guitarist David Gilmour. It’s your parents’ version of a YouTube influencer invading their timeline and saying, in no uncertain terms, that voting Labour would be the cool thing to do. And, let’s face it, parents want to be cool even more than their kids.

The thing that worries me about this present situation is that it’s only ramping up, and we don’t seem to be especially bothered by it. Anything that isn’t on Facebook these days is definitely indexed by Google or served up on its incredibly influential TV replacement, YouTube. In past elections, TV airtime was the most valuable currency for any politician, and the role of the newscaster was sacrosanct (the most trusted person in America was once Walter Cronkite). Now people get their news from the same place that they share cat GIFs. In the future, the hot property will be Facebook screen space and YouTube exposure. And while Google and Facebook, as they are currently constituted, keep making decisions that broadly agree with a liberal and scientific perspective, what their stranglehold on our attention will mean for the proper functioning of democracies is subject to debate. I think it’s time we had that debate.

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