Victor Davis Hanson
The Silicon Valley Octopus Flexed its Tentacles
In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the author describes a soulless world created by an authoritarian cadre that controlled even the thoughts of its subjects through massive electronic surveillance. An all-powerful state bureaucracy warped language, ideas, and history to convince and coerce the residents of Oceania that a benevolent “Big Brother” was ensuring them a society of caring, equality, and fairness—despite being opposed by a myriad of purported enemies, foreign and domestic.
Orwell most often had in mind not contemporary democracies of the late 1940s. He worried far more about the postwar Stalinist Soviet Union and its everyday embrace of surveillance, propaganda, thought crimes, gulags, show trials, forced hospitalizations, and erasures of so-called enemies of the people from all historical records—all to promote a supposedly revolutionary communist agenda.
Seventy-two years later Orwell is again considered prescient because he foresaw how electronic communications in any society could intrude into the lives of ordinary people while being manipulated by the state. And these efforts would not be just to spy on citizens’ thoughts and actions, but to so warp and insidiously rehabilitate them that eventually there would be no dissidents at all. All would ultimately come to “love” Big Brother.
There were two prime subtexts to Orwell’s dystopia.
One, with technological progress comes moral regress—an age-old warning dating back to the 7th-century B.C. Greek poet Hesiod’s railing about “bribe takers” and corruption during the ascendance of the civilizing city-state. The wizards who created big-screen televisions and electronic monitoring in 1984 were, to Orwell, no more ethical because of their spectacular technological and scientific expertise.
Two, communism, or indeed totalitarianism in general (as we see in Orwell’s novella Animal Farm) is an especially dangerous partner of electronic surveillance and communications, perhaps even more so than right-wing dictators or oligarchs.
Leftist totalitarianism employs a sophisticated propaganda of caring, Big Brother-equality, and steady human progress that far more effectively disguises its self-interested lust for power and control.
Contemporary government often uses its power of instantaneous communications to construct not just narratives, but reinvent vocabulary to construct alternative realities, usually in the effort not to pass judgement on any particular ideology or group—except perhaps traditionalists and conservatives.
During recent years, the U.S. government, for example, rebranded terrorist operations as “overseas contingency operations.” A 2009 terrorist attack at Fort Hood, Texas soon became mere “workplace violence.” “Man-made disasters” was the term often used for terrorist strikes.
The common theme of such doublespeak was an effort not to suggest any tie between radical Islam and a propensity to kill or maim Westerners—as if such an explicit connection might incite latent racists and xenophobes to emerge and harm Muslim-Americans. If, politically driven vocabulary was merely promulgated by government bureaus, the public would not notice much.
But when the administrative state is enhanced by mass electronic communications to a degree never seen before and controlled by a small group of corporate interests, apparently immune from anti-trust legislation, then these constructed realities can intrude into all aspects of life in “Big Brother is watching you” fashion, as new narratives can become orthodoxies almost instantaneously.
Modifiers were often tacked on to nouns in fear that words like “racism,” “bias,” or “aggression” might no longer be familiar referents in 21st-century multiracial America. And so adjectives like “systemic,” “implicit,” and “micro” were prefixed to remind the public that just because there was no evidence of pathologies did not mean that they did not exist in woke la-la land.
The primary dangers of the Internet, social media, downloads, uploads, smart phones, laptops, satellite television, and the entire array of electronic communications, entertainment and informational science are not just that such methods will be shaped and controlled by bad actors and hackers that manipulate such services and devices.
Most people recognize rank propaganda when they experience it. Instead, rarely have so many global adjudicators of thought and expression been concentrated into such a small locale as California’s incestuous Silicon Valley and resulting in such insidious influence, wealth, and power.
Consider that seven of the world’s ten largest tech companies according to a September 2018 survey are headquartered in Silicon Valley, roughly from San Mateo to Los Gatos, California. The combined market capitalization of just these seven corporations—Apple (#2), Alphabet (#4), Facebook (#6), Intel (#7), Cisco (#8), Oracle (#9), and Netflix (#10)—has reached about $3 trillion.
Yet the influence and sway of these tightly clustered corporations exceed even their financial clout that often shields them from traditional government supervision. Google now enjoys about a 90 percent share of all Internet searches worldwide—over 60,000 searches per second. Given that the average global consumer conducts about 3-4 searches per day, most of the world’s online information is accessed according to a single company’s protocols that decide what information first pops up on the user’s computer screen—and what does not pop up at all.
Facebook controls about 65 percent of all worldwide social media site visits. When fellow Silicon Valley social media companies are aggregated—Pinterest (#2 with 11.75 percent of worldwide social media visits), #3 Twitter (11.43 percent), #5 Instagram (a Facebook subsidiary, 6.47 percent), #6 YouTube (a Google subsidiary, 3.28 percent)—the result is that about 99 percent of all global social media daily visits are facilitated by just five companies, all located within a 50-mile radius.
Unlike the energy, utility, communications, and travel industries, Silicon Valley’s internet and social media companies remain mostly unregulated. Yet they enjoy a monopolistic control over most of the various ways citizens access information on the Internet or communicate over social media and email. Does that reality have any effect on the freedoms of the citizen?
Increasingly it does.
Silicon Valley sees its mission as twofold: to profit by facilitating the public in communicating over the Internet and to do so in such a way that people are massaged into adopting correct political attitudes that are increasingly in turn institutionalized by the state.
Next, such companies are virtual monopolies that harvest intimate personal details of their users and then sell or profit from their own users’ behavior as if it was their own domain. They take for granted that consumers have few other online choices.
Yet because electronic knowledge retrieval and communications are integral to contemporary life and rely on private companies’ use of the public air space, they logically deserve the same sort of oversight that has governed public utilities. Such concern is critical, given the political and partisan ways in which Silicon Valley’s products in the past have been manipulated—analogous to an electric utility massaging its service to consumers to further its own political agendas.
The so-called search engine manipulation effect (SEME)—the use of search ranking algorithms that determine the order of sites that a user will encounter when he seeks information on the Internet—has been routinely manipulated by Google in an overtly political manner.
To take one example, during the 2016 election, there were widespread complaints that Google had altered its searches to reflect a bias toward candidate Hillary Clinton. Such charges were based on data analyses and perhaps due to the suspicion that followed Hillary Clinton’s hiring as her chief technology officer a high-ranking Google official. In addition, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet (2015–17), the mother company of Google, helped to fund (somewhat stealthily), a political analytics firm, “The Groundwork,” to help elect Hillary Clinton.
Of course, any private company has a perfect right to use its resources to promote any idea or candidate it wishes, if such advocacy conforms to federal election and tax laws. But is Silicon Valley a wholly private industry, or in fact a quasi-public utility?
Or is it a monopoly of a few companies that by design squeezed out all competition on the rationale it was not subject to anti-trust laws? Google, for example, seems as much a utility—or not a utility—as are power companies, television broadcasting, radio stations, or telecommunications that provide vital public services.
Such electronic manipulation might be considered analogous to going to a public library and asking help in searching for books on a particular topic, only to encounter a library staff that consistently and by design serially directed the patron to studies by those of only one particular party. One Harvard University affiliated study found that Google’s search methodologies of ranking websites were adjusted according to political biases.
Google could not explain the criteria by which it suppressed some 300 Trump political ads by Google and its subsidiary YouTube, or whether such protocols extended in the same manner to other campaigns. When one buys something online, adds for similar products often pop up uninvited on one’s computer screen within minutes. That same sort of intrusiveness is applied to politics to help the consumer/voter make the correct decision.
Facebook, under pressure from conservative activist groups, conducted an outside audit of the various ways in which it censors content and advertisements on its Facebook pages. It agreed with third-party findings that it had shown bias in its blocking user content.
More specifically, the audit found that computer-driven algorithms that adjudicate searches had built in biases. In addition, Facebook arbitrarily had banned certain expression as “hate speech” based on its ideological content. Its standards for adjudicating political ads were not constant or transparent, but instead predicated on the corporation’s political preferences.
The Facebook workforce was found to be highly partisan and baked its own political preferences into its administration of Facebook. Translated: over six in ten using social media worldwide were subject to deliberate Facebook political manipulation.
All citizens are affected by such censorship, if only in minor and aggravating ways. In 2016 YouTube censored a short historical video I did on the various reasons why the United States entered the Korean War. The presentation was apolitical. But it was solicited by Dennis Praeger’s “Praeger University,” an online repository of brief videos on hundreds of historical, economic, cultural, and political issues, often presented from a center-right perspective. The Korean War video had no particular political content. Instead, it was flagged as “inappropriate” by partisan online viewers.
That is, no electronic algorithm caught the video due to sexual, violent, or inappropriate content. Instead a viewer or viewers simply wished either to restrict access to the video out of political dislike of me, or randomly selected a number of Praeger videos to seek to flag as incorrect or unacceptable. The result was that YouTube allowed particular viewers to exercise political censorship over content that they did not particularly agree with or simply wished to do malice to.
Again, YouTube is a subsidiary of Google. As a private company, it has a perfect right to censor any ideas or thoughts it does not particularly like. But does YouTube pose as a quasi-public utility in the public domain? It apparently does, since it purports to massage the content of its social platforms by hiring legions of content adjudicators, whose job is to scrutinize millions of videos, and who themselves are often accused of abject bias. In any case, there is an entire corpus of scholarship devoted to warning of the dangers of the monopolies of “big tech” and the threats it poses to democracy, both by controlling a public service and ruthlessly driving out all competition—in essence depriving American citizens of equal access to their First Amendment rights of free expression.
In addition, Internet users have their information, usually unknowingly, mined by tech conglomerates ostensibly to sell to advertisers and merchandisers but also to monitor the political views of social media and internet users. In our 24/7 surveillance society, computer users have no idea who is being surveilled by whom, when, how, and to what extent and for what purpose—other than by using social media, email, and internet searches, Americans can render to data mining almost everything that is needed about how to contact, monitor, categorize, and manipulate citizens.
One reason why current political polls are sometimes felt to be biased is respondents’ fear of offering their true political views even to anonymous pollster callers or texters—in fears such answers can be banked and later used or sold to the respondent’s detriment.
Yet the online dangers to individual freedoms are not merely political or private companies using the public domain to further their own particular agendas.
Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook as well as online blogs, in one sense should be the freest of all expression. After all, there are few hierarchies that filter content and almost anyone can weigh on issues of collective interest. But increasingly “call-out culture,” “cancel culture,” or “outrage culture” function like Old West vigilantism. Given the hundreds of millions who hourly participate in the online community, an electronic mob can be alerted, organized and directed to zero in on a single tweet, email, or Facebook posting deemed unorthodox or politically incorrect. Almost immediately, without evidence, thousands can focus on the targeted victim with violence, hate speech, boycotts, and career-ending ostracism, often “doxing” the target by releasing his private contact information to millions.
Yet unlike the Old West, there is no electronic sheriff with a double-barrel shotgun to ensure the lynch mob does not storm the jail and string up his suspect. By that I mean there are no consequences when the often unnamed organize efforts to defame or libel political opponents, especially given the fact that Google, Facebook, and others have already acknowledged that they audit their own content often by standards that are most certainly not non-political. If anything, the proverbial internet sheriff is now often on the side of the politically correct mob.
Silicon Valley relies for much of its information on the media, in particular major newspapers, news agencies, television, and internet magazines, what we now know as the mainstream media. In that way it serves as a force multiplier of its sources, from the manner in which it orders search findings to the rules by which social media users must follow to communicate with others.
Unfortunately, just as in case of the deep state and Silicon Valley, the so-called media is no longer disinterested. It too has an agenda that at times is antithetical to empirical presentation of the news––and to the unalienable rights that define the citizen.
As for the technology’s retort that its gift of instant access to global information has made the citizens of democracies more knowledgeable and thus more equipped to exercise their voting rights responsibly, the very opposite seems to be true. School test scores are declining along with the general knowledge of the citizenry about their very own institutions. By the 21st century it was clear that youth were using the Internet far more than watching television each week (more than 16 versus 14 hours each week)—mostly focusing on online gaming, gambling, social media communications, or pornography.
While smart phones and the Internet may not be the only culprits responsible for this new investment of leisure hours, there is ample evidence that most use these devices to electronically chat, play video games, view pornography, take and transmit pictures—and rarely to investigate and access historical, literary, or scientific knowledge. In that sense, the new online technology has offered new addictive entertainment that has crowded out reading from the average citizen’s day.
Again, the result is a 1984-like surrealism. The citizen is convinced that what he sees and hears on the electronic screen or reads on the Internet cannot in any way be supported with evidence or reason.