Have Google and Facebook become unwitting tools of extremism?

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Google and Facebook see themselves fundamentally as instruments of progress. Their company narratives argue that the information and communication they deliver or facilitate are helping, not harming, people and society as a whole.

But what if the opposite is true? What if Google and Facebook have become effective tools of misinformation and hate-group propaganda? That’s essentially the argument of a Guardian article that appeared over the weekend:

Tech-savvy rightwingers have been able to “game” the algorithms of internet giants and create a new reality where Hitler is a good guy, Jews are evil and… Donald Trump becomes president.

The Guardian article asserts that extremists have become as skilled as anyone at ranking and that they’re promulgating false information and hateful propaganda, which is starting to have real-world consequences, in terms of election outcomes and social attitudes towards minorities and immigrants. The article focuses on antisemitism and Islamophobia in particular.

Both Google and Facebook have been embroiled in the fake news controversy since the US election and on the defensive regarding the degree to which their lack of editorial oversight allowed the exposure and sharing of misinformation that may have influenced the outcome.

After initially denying any negative influence, Facebook has done an about-face and is now actively seeking ways to prevent fake news from being disseminated on the site, including curating content and potentially favoring established news sites. In addition, both Google and Facebook have implemented changes that seek to cut off ad revenues to fake news sites.

Some of the controversies discussed in the Guardian article are nothing new. Google has drawn scrutiny and criticism over the years around its ranking of news, content and its autocomplete suggestions. And partisans on both the left and the right have made conspiratorial claims about how Google is intentionally promoting one or another perspective through its rankings or search suggestions. Most recently, conservatives complained that Google wasn’t showing search suggestions for the phrase, “Crooked Hillary.”

Google isn’t manipulating its algorithm or search suggestions to advance a political agenda. But others seeking to influence the public and social attitudes are themselves trying to game it. Around the world, the internet is arguably becoming more a tool of authoritarian control and propaganda (e.g., in Russia and China) than of the free flow of information, facts or progress.

According to one of Trump’s surrogates over the weekend, we now live in a society where facts no longer matter. “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of [sic] facts,” Scottie Nell Hughes argued. This notion is the opposite of what Google stands for.

Google and Facebook have both contributed to and celebrated the democratization of news and content — the idea that someone with a blog and a strong perspective or voice can potentially get the same visibility and distribution as The New York Times. While that has created considerable opportunity for enterprising individuals and entrepreneurs, it has also probably diminished the credibility of established news brands and enabled dubious sources and perspectives to reach mass audiences.

The quasi-utopian vision that both Google and Facebook share is one of technology contributing to ever-expanding social progress. However, the Guardian’s more dystopian view argues the opposite is starting to happen: extremists and authoritarians are successfully gaming search and social media, confusing the public, spreading hate and starting to undermine democratic institutions.

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