Big Tech’s Greatest Threat

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Authored by Robert Epstein via The Gatestone Institute,

“Ephemeral experiences”: You might never have heard this phrase, but it’s a very important concept. These are brief experiences you have online in which content appears briefly and then disappears, leaving no trace. Those are the kinds of experiences we have been preserving in our election monitoring projects. You can’t see the search results that Google was showing you last month. They’re not stored anywhere, so they leave no paper trail for authorities to trace. Ephemeral experiences are, it turns out, quite a powerful tool of manipulation.

Are people at companies like Google aware of the power they have? Absolutely… In emails leaked from Google to the Wall Street Journal in 2018, one employee says to others, “How can we use ephemeral experiences to change people’s views about Trump’s travel ban?” There is that phrase, “ephemeral experiences.”

During a period of days before the 2020 election, we found that on Google’s home page, it was sending “go vote” reminders just to liberals. That’s a powerful ephemeral message, and not a single one went to conservatives. How do we know this? Because we were recording the content our 700 “field agents” were seeing on their computer screens. That was a diverse group of registered voters we had recruited in three key swing states. Google was sending those vote reminders only to liberals. That’s a powerful manipulation that’s entirely invisible to people — unless a group like ours has found a way to monitor what people are seeing.

A preliminary analysis of the more than 500,000 ephemeral experiences we preserved in Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida, turned up some disturbing things. Number one, we found a strong liberal bias in the search results people saw on Google when they searched for political topics; this bias was absent on Bing and Yahoo. 92% of searches are conducted on Google, and we know from years of experiments we’ve conducted that biased search results can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters, and those are the people who decide the outcomes of close elections. In experiments, we can easily shift 20% or more of undecided voters after just one search by showing them biased search results.

In a national study we conducted in 2013, in one demographic group — moderate Republicans — we got a shift of 80% after just one search, so some people are especially trusting of search results, and Google knows this. The company can easily manipulate undecided voters using techniques like this — in other words, people who are vulnerable to being influenced.

Even before people see search results, biased search suggestions — those phrases Google flashes at you when you start to type a search term — can shift thinking and behavior. We have shown in controlled experiments that biased search suggestions can turn a 50‑50 split among undecided voters into a 90‑10 split, with no one having the slightest idea they have been manipulated.

People have no idea that manipulations like these are being used. They are simply doing what they always do — typing in a search term, clicking (sometimes) on a search suggestion, and then clicking on a high-ranking search result, which takes them to a web page. They are trusting what is high in search results, usually clicking on the first or second item and trusting that this is the best answer to their question.

Unfortunately, people mistakenly believe that computer output must be impartial and objective. People especially trust Google to give them accurate results. Therefore, when people who are undecided click on a high‑ranking search result and are taken to a Web page that supports one candidate, they tend to believe the information they’re being shown. They have no idea that they may have been driven to that web page by highly biased search results that favor the candidate Google is supporting.

Dwight D. Eisenhower did not talk about his accomplishments in his famous farewell speech of 1961. Instead, he warned us about the rise of a “technological elite” who could control public policy without anyone knowing. He warned us about a future in which democracy would be meaningless. What I have to tell you is this: The technological elite are now in control. You just don’t know it. Big Tech had the ability to shift 15 million votes in 2020 without anyone knowing that they did so and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace. Our calculations suggest that they actually shifted at least six million votes to President Biden without people knowing. This makes the free-and-fair election — a cornerstone of democracy — an illusion.

I am not a conservative, so I should be thrilled about what these companies are doing. But no one should be thrilled, no matter what one’s politics. No private company should have this kind of power, even if, at the moment, they happen to be supporting your side.

Do these companies think they are in charge? Are they planning a future that only they know for all of us? Unfortunately, there are many indications that the answers to these questions are yes. One of the items that leaked from Google in 2018 was an eight‑minute video called “The Selfish Ledger,” which should be accessible here. I also made a transcript of the film.

This video was never meant to be seen outside of Google, and it is about the power that Google has to reshape humanity, to create computer software that “not only tracks our behavior but offers direction towards a desired result.”

How do we protect ourselves from companies like this? It’s more difficult than you might think. How do you control a mind control machine, after all? You might have heard the phrase “regulatory capture” — an old practice in which a large company that is facing punishment from the government works with the government to come up with a regulatory plan that suits the company.

When you are talking about, for example, “breaking up” Google, all this means is that we will force them to sell off a couple of the hundreds of companies they have bought. On average, Google buys another company every week. We force them to sell off some companies, the major shareholders are enriched by billions of dollars, and the company still has the same power and poses the same threats it does today — threats to democracy, to free speech, and even to human autonomy.

Tech moves at the speed of light, but regulation and law move slowly. It’s doubtful that regulations and laws will ever be able to protect us from emerging technologies. But imagine if these companies knew that we were monitoring them on a large scale 365 days a year — that we were, in effect, doing the same thing to them that they do to us and our children 24 hours a day.

Imagine that we were, in effect, looking over the shoulders of thousands of real people (with their permission), just as the Nielsen Company does with its network of families to monitor their television watching. Imagine if these tech companies knew that they were being monitored — that even the answers they are giving people on personal assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri were being monitored. Do you think they would risk sending out targeted vote reminders to members of just one political party? I doubt it very much, because we would catch them immediately and report their manipulation to authorities and the media.

On October 30, 2020 — a few days before the November 3rd election, we went public with some of our election monitoring findings, and we got Google to back down. From the 31st on, Google started sending those vote reminders to everyone, not just to liberals.

Remember that all the usual election shenanigans are inherently competitive: tampering with votes, mail, and voting machines. But the kinds of influence that I have been discovering and studying since 2013 is not competitive. That is the difference. In other words, if Google itself wants to favor one cause or one candidate, there is no way to counteract what they are doing. In fact, without monitoring systems in place, you can’t even detect Google’s manipulations, even though they can shift the opinions and votes of millions of people. And people have no idea they’re being manipulated, which makes these kinds of manipulations especially dangerous. People end up concluding that they have made up their own minds when in fact they have not.

We have conducted controlled experiments with tens of thousands of people covering five national elections. We know how powerful these new forms of influence are. We know that people cannot see them. We know that people mistakenly end up believing that they have made up their own minds when in fact we were the ones who decided which candidate they were going to support.

What can we do? In my opinion, the solution to almost all the problems these companies present is to set up large‑scale monitoring systems and to make them permanent — not just in the United States, but around the world. Because monitoring is technology, it can keep up with whatever the new tech companies are throwing at us, and however they are threatening us, we can get them to stop.

I am envisioning a new nonprofit organization that specializes in monitoring what the tech companies are showing to voters, families, and children — protecting democracy and the autonomy and independence of all citizens. There might also be a for‑profit spinoff that could serve as a permanent funding source for the nonprofit. The for‑profit spinoff could provide commercial services to campaigns, law firms, candidates, researchers, and many others.

And there’s another way to completely eliminate the threats that Google poses to democracy and humanity. As I noted in an article I published in Bloomberg Businessweek in 2019, and as I testified before Congress that year, our government could quickly end Google’s monopoly on search by declaring that the database Google uses to generate search results is a “public commons,” accessible to all. It is a very old legal concept, and it is a light-touch form of regulation. It would rapidly lead to the creation of thousands of competing search platforms, each appealing to different audiences.

On November 5, 2020, three U.S. Senators — Senator Mike Lee, Senator Ron Johnson, and Senator Ted Cruz — sent a letter on U.S. Senate stationary to the CEO of Google. The letter talks about some of the findings from a 2020 online election monitoring project in which my team and I had discovered several things.

We had detected — just as we had in previous elections — a strong liberal bias in Google search results, but not in search results on Bing or Yahoo. That is important for comparison purposes. It was a liberal bias sufficient to have shifted at least six million votes over time toward Biden and toward other Democratic candidates.

We also found a smoking gun. This is what the Senators’ letter focuses on. We found that for a period of days before the election, on Google’s home page the company was sending a “go-vote” reminder just to liberals. Not a single one went to conservatives. How do we know this?

Because we had recruited 733 field agents in key swing states: Arizona, Florida and North Carolina. The agents were registered voters. They were diverse, politically and in other ways demographically. We knew who the liberals were, who the conservatives were, and who the moderates were.

With their permission, we had installed special software on their computers that allowed us, in effect, to look over their shoulders as they were doing politically related things on the Internet. We aggregated that data. What we are particularly interested in are what are called “ephemeral experiences.” That phrase comes right from a leak of emails from Google to The Wall Street Journal.

Ephemeral experiences — it’s a very important concept. It’s how Google and other tech companies shift opinions and votes without people knowing. We were preserving these fleeting events that impact us every day and that normally then disappear, leaving no trace. Normally, these kinds of events — like search results, search suggestions, newsfeeds, or messages coming from Facebook or Google — normally, events like these appear, they impact us, they disappear, and they are then lost forever. You can’t go back in time and see what these events were. You can’t look back at the search results Google showed you last month.

I have been conducting randomized controlled studies on the impact of ephemeral experiences on behavior, thinking, and voting now for almost eight years, so I have learned a great deal about how they work, and they are powerful. Are people at companies like Google aware of the power they have? Absolutely.

In leaked emails from Google in 2018, one employee says to others, “How can we use ephemeral experiences to change people’s views about Trump’s travel ban?” There is that phrase: “ephemeral experiences.”

Why are they interested in using ephemeral experiences to influence people — and not just us, by the way, but also people around the world? Because such experiences are extremely powerful and because they leave no paper trail for authorities to trace. They are the perfect weapon for changing people’s views or changing the outcome of elections.

We set up our first election monitoring system in 2016. We were able to preserve 13,000 election‑related searches on Google, Bing, and Yahoo. We found significant liberal bias in Google search results, sufficient to have shifted between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes to Hillary Clinton (whom I supported) without people knowing that this was occurring and without leaving a paper trail.

This was quite an accomplishment at the time. We had 95 field agents in 24 states. We preserved 13,000 searches and about 98,000 Web pages. Preserving those ephemeral events allowed us to analyze them, looking for political bias.

To compare, this year in the Presidential election we had 733 field agents in three key swing states because we knew that if there were going to be manipulations, we would most likely detect them in those states.

This time we preserved over 500,000 ephemeral events – not just on Google, but on Bing, Yahoo, Google’s home page, YouTube and Facebook. It will take us months to analyze this wealth of data.

A preliminary analysis of the data we collected yielded disturbing findings:

  • Number one, we found strong liberal bias in Google search results, but not in search results on Bing or Yahoo. Since 92% of searches are conducted on Google, that can shift a lot of votes — not yours, perhaps, but the votes of undecided voters — the people who decide who wins a close election.
  • In controlled experiments, we can easily use biased search results to shift 20% or more of undecided voters. We can shift their opinions and their voting preferences after just one search.
  • In one demographic group — moderate Republicans — we found a remarkable shift of 80% after just one search.

People have no idea this is occurring. People are simply doing what they always do. They are trusting what is high in search results, usually clicking on the first or second item and trusting that doing so will lead them to the best web page.

People mistakenly believe that computer output must be impartial and objective, and they especially trust Google for giving them accurate results. Therefore, when someone who is undecided clicks on a high‑ranking search result, and it takes them to a Web page that makes one candidate look better than the other, the user tends to trust the content. It has been chosen by an impartial computer algorithm, after all.

With television, newspapers, billboards, and advertisements, everyone is skeptical of what they see because they see the human hand. Also, in conventional forms of influence, there is competition. You put up your billboard, I put up mine.

The problem with platforms like Google and Facebook and Twitter is that they have no competitors. If Google itself is favoring one candidate or one party, you cannot counteract the influence that their tools are having on users.

Generally speaking, in fact, unless you do the kind of monitoring that I do, you can’t even detect what they are doing. They have tremendous power, not just here but around the world, to impact thinking, behavior, beliefs, attitudes, purchases — and votes.

I gave a speech recently at Hillsdale College. They asked me to submit a copy in writing, which I did. My title was “The Technological Elite Are Now in Control.”

It might surprise you to hear where I got that phrase from: “technological elite.” It comes from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell speech as president in January 1961, which he gave a few days before John F. Kennedy was inaugurated.

Some people are old enough to remember that speech because it warned people about the rise of “the military industrial complex.” In that same speech, Eisenhower also warned about the rise of a “technological elite” who could control public policy without anyone knowing.

This was 1961, a decade before the invention of the microcomputer, decades before the invention of the Internet, decades before the founding of Google. What an extraordinary speech that was.

The usual farewell speeches of a president usually review an administration’s accomplishments. Sometimes we also get some platitudes about how great the American people are and what a great future we have to look forward to.

That is not what Eisenhower did. Remember, this was a highly decorated U.S. Army general who led the Allied forces in World War II. Eisenhower did not talk about his accomplishments. He warned us about a future in which democracy would be meaningless.

Here’s what I have to tell you about this issue: The technological elite are now in control. You just don’t know it. They had the ability to shift 15 million votes in 2020 without anyone knowing that they did so and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace — except, of course, for my monitoring projects.

Let me say a bit about that. What we have done is extraordinary. We have preserved hundreds of thousands of these extremely dangerous ephemeral experiences that Google and other tech companies now use deliberately to affect thinking and behavior.

How do we know it’s deliberate? Well, I’ve already mentioned those emails that leaked in 2018, and, at this point, we also have several hundred leaked documents, as well as a dozen whistleblowers who are telling us over and over again that Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and other tech companies have a strong political agenda and that they are using tools that people are unaware of to advance that political agenda.

I am not a conservative, so I should be thrilled about what these companies are doing. I have friends and family members who are thrilled and who are also unhappy with my research. But no one should be thrilled, no matter what one’s politics, because no private company should have the power to undermine our democracy.

Today, they might be advancing a cause you believe in, but you don’t know what cause they will be supporting tomorrow. If you look around the world, in fact, you will find that Google does not necessarily support the left outside the United States.

Here, 96% of Google’s donations go to Democrats, but in Cuba, the company supports the right because the left is in power, and the people in power don’t like Google.

In China, Google works with the Chinese government to help the government to surveil and control its population. You don’t know what these companies are going to do — what their agenda is going to be from one day to the next.

Another leak from Google is a PowerPoint presentation called “The Good Censor.” In this presentation Google explains that, by default, it is the world’s censor, but that it is a “good” censor because the decisions they make about what we see and do not see are good decisions. According to whom? (For further information on this issue, see my article, “The New Censorship,” in U.S. News & World Report.)

The problem here is that these companies are not accountable to us. Our elected officials are, and they come and go. We can vote them out of office, but Google is not accountable to anyone, except maybe its shareholders.

Facebook is not even accountable to its shareholders. Mark Zuckerberg holds the lion’s share of voting stock, so he is not accountable to anyone.

These are the executives who now control the most powerful tools of manipulation ever invented.

I discovered the first such tool in 2013 — the Search Engine Manipulation Effect — SEME for short. Since then, I have discovered a dozen similar new forms of online influence and have been studying and quantifying them over the years.

Manipulating search suggestions, for example — those little phrases that flash at you as you are typing a search term into the search bar — can turn a 50‑50 split among undecided voters into a 90‑10 split with no one having the slightest idea they have been manipulated. I call this manipulation the Search Suggestion Effect (SSE).

Those answer boxes you see above the search results also impact opinions and votes. Did you know that 50% of Google searches no longer end in a click? Think about what that means. In other words, while someone is typing a search term, Google flashes an answer and many people just accept it. No click. I’ve been studying this phenomenon too; I call it the Answer Bot Effect (ABE).

How about the Google Home device or the Google Assistant on Android phones? You ask a question, and a computerized voice simply gives you “the answer.” This also shifts opinions and votes, just as those answer boxes do. But where did that answer come from? Who decided that that was the correct answer? Who checked it? Was it checked by any experts or scholars? Of course not. The answers Google gives you serve the company’s needs. They make more money for the company, shift political thinking according to company values, or both.

Perhaps you have an Apple iPhone, and Siri gives you answers, so you’re free from Google’s influence, right? But do you know where Siri gets its answers from? From Google. Siri is just an extension of Google. Apple pays Google $6 billion a year to get those answers.

Let me just finish by pointing out some very broad issues here. We are all aware at this point that under the Trump administration (but not under Obama), several federal agencies went after Google, and to some extent, Facebook: the FCC, the FTC, the DOJ, and so on. You might also have heard about our government’s plans for breaking up Big Tech companies. I work with members of Congress, with people from the DOJ, and with the attorneys general of several states, and I can tell you that all that is happening here is “regulatory capture.”

That’s a very old practice in which a large company that is facing punishment from the government works with the government to come up with a plan that suits the company. That is what is happening right now. You might think that these companies are on the verge of being tamed, but that is not the case.

When you are talking about breaking up Google, for example, all this means is that the government will force them to sell off some of the hundreds of companies they have bought over the years. On average, Google buys another company every week.

When they sell off companies, the major shareholders will be enriched by billions of dollars, and the company will still have the same power it has now. It will still present the same threats it currently poses to democracy, to free speech, and even to human autonomy.

This is because you cannot break up the Google search engine itself, and, in the case of Facebook, you cannot break up the social media platform itself. For both companies, these central platforms give these companies three powers which pose, in my view, grave threats to democracy and humanity.

The first power is surveillance. Google is observing us and our children using more than 200 different tools that people are entirely unaware of. If you wear a Fitbit device, first of all, you should throw it away. Google recently purchased Fitbit, which allows it to track physiological data about you and your children 24 hours a day. If you have a smart thermostat in your house made by the Nest company, I suggest you replace with an old-fashioned one from Home Depot as soon as possible. About five years ago, Google bought Nest, after which it installed microphones into the smart thermostats without telling anyone. The most recent versions of the thermostats have cameras in them, as well.

Google uses a business model which is called the “surveillance business model,” which Google invented 20 years ago, and that model has since spread to thousands of other companies. They trick us into using software or gadgets that spy on us, and then they monetize the personal information they’re collecting.

They have no actual products. We the people are their products. That is the world that we will be handing over to our kids and grandkids. To me, that is unacceptable.

What can we do? Unfortunately, not just because of regulatory capture, but for other reasons as well, I do not believe that laws or regulations are going to solve this problem. Laws and regulations move very slowly, while technology moves at lightning speed.

So what, if anything, can we do? In my opinion, the solution to almost all the problems that these companies present is to set up monitoring systems of the sort that I have set up, but to set them up on a very large scale and to make them permanent — not just in the United States, but around the world.

Monitoring is technology, so it can detect and expose whatever new manipulations tech companies are dishing out, and it can also get them to stop.

How do I know this? Because on Thursday, October 29, 2020, we got Google to back down on a blatant manipulation. On that day, I decided to go public with some of our monitoring results, and I was communicating all day with a reporter, Ebony Bowden, from the New York Post. I sent her lots of details about what we were finding. She drafted an article that day about evidence my team and I had collected which suggested that there had been large‑scale election rigging in 2020.

Her editor asked Google for comments on the article before it was to be printed the next day. Even without asking for comments, Google knew all about the upcoming article, because the New York Post, like The New York Times and The Guardian and hundreds of other newspapers, not to mention thousands of schools and universities, shares all its emails with Google. (See my article on this topic in The Daily Caller here.)

That night, two things happened — one bad, one good. The bad thing is that the article was pulled, killed. In other words, I was censored by the conservative, Trump-supporting New York Post, which is crazy. How could that have happened? Might someone from Google have reminded the powers that be at the Post that 32% of the newspaper’s traffic comes from Google? Google could shut down the Post in a heartbeat.

The New York Post had taken on Twitter just a few weeks before, because Twitter was suppressing its negative story about Hunter Biden. The Post could take on Twitter because only 5% of its traffic comes from Twitter, but taking on Google would have been risky.

And a second thing happened that night, important because it means there is hope for the future. A few minutes before midnight on Thursday, October 29th, Google stopped its targeted “go-vote” manipulation. From that point on until the end of Election Day, all 733 of our field agents received those go‑vote reminders. The targeting stopped.

Imagine if these companies knew that we were monitoring them on a large scale 365 days a year — that we were, in effect, looking over the shoulders of thousands of real people, just as the Nielsen Company does with the Nielsen families. Nielsen monitors television watching; that is where the Nielsen ratings come from.

Imagine if these tech companies knew they were being monitored — that even the answers they were giving on personal assistants were being monitored. Do you think they would risk sending out targeted vote reminders just to some political groups and not others? I doubt it, because they would risk fines and even jail sentences by doing so.

We need to find the resources and the will to create large‑scale, permanent monitoring systems. They will protect our children and maybe even our grandchildren from manipulation by new technologies. They will protect democracy, free speech, and human autonomy. That is the vision I’m sharing with you today.

I’ll finish by giving you a couple of links. One is MyGoogleResearch.com, If you scroll to the bottom of the page, you will find a link to the letter that was sent by three US senators to the CEO of Google, on November 5th, 2020.

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