Exposed! Americans Are Sheep!
Ted Cruz chaired a deeply important hearing in the U.S. Senate on a theme sure to win him favor with the Trump cult, which of course is the chief motivation for everything he has done for the past two and a half years. Continuing his paternalistic, optics-mongering vendetta against the big internet companies, Cruz “proved” what everyone already knew, namely that Google rigs its search engine to prioritize left-leaning political search results and minimize right-leaning ones.
The argument — i.e., the pre-loaded conclusion of the “hearing” — is that skewing search results in this way tends to give users the impression that the progressive point of view on the issues of the day is more prominent, and particularly more popular, than it may really be, or alternatively to dampen enthusiasm for anti-progressive points of view by reducing their visibility, thus suggesting that those perspectives are less popular than they may really be.
Actually, that is the argument as whittled down to its logical and factual elements, by me. As Cruz explicitly and emphatically represents it, these facts supposedly prove that “a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires” used a search engine “to silently and deceptively shift vote outcomes.” Let me quote Cruz’s key phrase again: “shift vote outcomes.”
The concrete claim Cruz was shilling, then, with the help of an “expert witness,” psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein (who supported Hillary in 2016!!!), is that by tweaking its search engine algorithms to highlight political results favoring Democrats, Google — still officially a private company, last time I checked — had “manipulated millions of votes” in 2016. In fact, the expert has somehow determined the exact minimum number of “votes” that were “manipulated,” 2.6 million. But it is important to remember, as Epstein “corrects” his host and fellow cast member, Ted “Lapdog” Cruz, that figure is just a low-ball estimate; the actual number of manipulated votes could have been (read “likely was”) much, much higher. In fact, he claims the number of Google-manipulated votes might have been as high as 10.4 million.
Well, it’s reassuring to know this is scientific research, not just a bunch of political fear-mongering, and that Dr. Epstein has applied a finely tuned methodology to calculate these conclusions. There’s nothing more satisfying than the scientific precision of a concrete figure like “between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes, depending on how aggressively they used the techniques I’ve been studying.”
So according to Cruz’s expert, who of course, as a researcher specializing in (i.e., making his name in) exactly this field, has a vested interest in making his findings seem as essential and shocking as possible, Trump might really have won the 2016 popular vote by over 20 million votes, if we shifted those 10.4 million “manipulated” Hillary votes back over to her donor and friend — a bigger margin of popular vote victory than Reagan’s over Mondale in 1984. This is important stuff. I love social science! It’s just so darned…scientific.
Now, of course, one who lacked both the (social) scientific sobriety of Dr. Epstein and the bootlicking sycophancy of Lyin’ Ted might quibble over these hard truths with a few questions here, to wit:
Aren’t “manipulating votes” and “shifting votes” deliberately…oh, let’s say, manipulative phrases, in that they imply that actual votes were altered or falsified by Google, whereas what Cruz and Epstein are really saying is only that Google manipulates search results in the hopes of forming a certain opinion in the minds of its users? In other words, wouldn’t it be more accurate and honest to say that Google is using its search engine to manipulate voters, rather than votes?
Since Google has (as far as we know) absolutely no power to directly control anyone’s voting behavior, let alone to change actual vote counts per se, isn’t it true that the most we can say about the intentions of their search engine tweaking is that they are trying to create an impression about which political perspectives are more (or less) popular?
Isn’t creating such impressions about political matters, by highlighting the ideas they prefer and minimizing the ideas they don’t like, part and parcel of the way all media sources use and disseminate political information?
Isn’t Cruz’s hearing similarly intended to “shift vote outcomes,” i.e., to create a specific political impression in voters’ minds, by deliberately highlighting — we might say over-emphasizing — certain ominous-sounding facts about the way Google uses its search engine, while de-emphasizing alternative or mitigating ideas?
Isn’t this hearing’s conclusion about Google basically premised on the belief that millions of American voters are highly susceptible to having their political views and voting behavior decisively swayed by perceptions concerning which beliefs or interpretations of facts are more popular at any given moment? In other words, isn’t accusing Google of “shifting” votes by making some views seem more popular than they really are, tantamount to saying that millions of voters are incapable of the basic level of moral and intellectual maturity and independence necessary to make a voting decision without automatically deferring to what they perceive as the more popular view?
Hasn’t this kind of political manipulation — swinging voters by creating biased or cleverly suggestive impressions of popular opinion, which would only be effective on people who lacked the independence to think for themselves and vote responsibly — been the central method of political news coverage for as long as there has been a “free press” in America?
Wouldn’t a quick look at the nature and history of political polls — which are nothing but carefully calibrated (i.e., rigged) surveys of alleged popular opinion — show that what Google is being accused of here is really no different from what every single election poll in the history of election polling was intended to achieve, namely to guide people’s opinions by creating emotional impressions of popularity, “momentum,” “frontrunners,” “surges,” and the like, all presented in the deliberately misleading guise of objective scientific research? (I have written about the topic of polling many times in the past. Shortly, for your delectation, I will repost here in Limbo one of my “classics” on the subject, from way back when.)
Is Google being manipulative with their search engine results? No doubt about it. Is the news media, in all of its branches and instantiations, perennially manipulative in its coverage of political stories? Obviously. Do elected politicians lie and obfuscate and exaggerate and fear-monger in the hopes of “manipulating votes”? Well, the 2016 U.S. presidential election was a contest between arguably the two worst human beings in America not currently serving life sentences in prison — and over a hundred million Americans voted for one or the other of them. So you tell me if people were being manipulated.
What Ted Cruz and his social scientist friend were really proving in their little TV special from the senate floor — apart from how dangerously manipulative the social sciences are, and how dehumanizing their founding principles are — is something any thoughtful person already knew, a fact sadly reinforced by the hearing itself, namely that millions of American voters are sheep incapable of overcoming superficial attempts to manipulate their opinions and behavior, due to an overwhelming inclination to childishness, in the form of blind deference to perceived popular opinion. In other words, mindless submission to The Crowd.
Social scientists, and the opportunists who exploit their “findings,” ought to spend a lot less time fantasizing about a world of value-free facts regarding human beliefs and behavior, and a lot more time thinking about those “values” they pretend to be scientifically excluding, i.e., about why, as in this case, so many adults are so dependent on perceptions of majority sentiment when tasked with an important decision, and what sort of civilizational changes would be required to correct this grave popular deficiency. In other words, contrary to our social scientists and their political allies, and more in keeping with the wisdom of an age that never mistook statistics for science, choices for necessity, or our paltriest weaknesses for human nature:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
— Julius Caesar, 1.2.140-141