On Tuesday, at the request of congressional Republicans, Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee. The goal of the hearing was to better Congress’ understanding of the search giant’s practices around data collection and use -- or at least it was supposed to be. Unfortunately, like in past hearings with tech executives, much of the questioning focused on the idea that the company has some sort of deep-seated anti-conservative bias that needs to be examined and eradicated.
There’s nothing new about the false allegations that social media and tech companies are biased against conservatives. In fact, these claims are just the latest incarnation of a long-term effort to brand the mainstream American press as “liberal,” which dates back to at least a half-century ago, when Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater gave reporters covering his campaign pins that read “Eastern Liberal Press.”
The claim of bias is little more than an attempt to “work the refs” or to get favorable treatment by calling foul. And given that House Republicans are just weeks from losing their power to call these sorts of hearings (as they will when the new Democratic-controlled House takes over), it made sense for them to hold one final show designed to make the McCarthy hearings look like a low-budget community theater production of The Crucible.
It doesn’t actually matter that Republicans are lying when they claim bias, since they get their desired result anyway.
In 2016, Gizmodo published a story titled “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” It was an explosive if not particularly well-sourced story, based on the opinion of two of the site’s trending-section curators, one of whom openly identified as conservative. Other curators interviewed for that story couldn’t corroborate those claims. The argument seemed to be that sites like Drudge Report, Breitbart, Washington Examiner, and Newsmax weren’t treated with the same level of authority as The New York Times, BBC, and CNN. The practice isn’t censorship or anti-conservative bias, but rather just a decision to favor trusted, mainstream sources over aggregators and partisan outlets. In any case, the article handed the Republican Party a talking point, and that same day, the GOP published a blog post demanding that Facebook address the issue of censorship against conservatives:
With 167 million US Facebook users reading stories highlighted in the trending section, Facebook has the power to greatly influence the presidential election.
It is beyond disturbing to learn that this power is being used to silence view points (sic) and stories that don't fit someone else's agenda.
Censorship in any form should give Americans who value their fundamental freedoms great pause.
Now, most people likely understand that there are good reasons to trust newspapers and media organizations that do original reporting over aggregators like Drudge. But the narrative had been created, and the GOP jumped on it. Panicked, Facebook officials met with a slew of conservative media commentators and other right-wing leaders to try to put out the public relations fire. The goal was to force Facebook to institute a pro-conservative bias, and it worked. Facebook fired its human curators, replacing them with an algorithm that heavily promoted hoax news stories before eliminating the section altogether. Additionally, Facebook created a task force to root out liberal bias (which, again, doesn’t actually exist).
Conservatives worked the refs, and Facebook caved. But by taking steps to appease the insatiable beast that is the conservative victimhood complex, Facebook sent a clear message: The tech industry fears conservatives, and that fear can be leveraged. Since then, Congress has held show trials masked as hearings about anti-conservative bias, leading social platforms and tech companies to take proactive steps to express pro-conservative views.
Earlier this week, Wired published a story about leaked audio from a Google meeting in which executives at the company expressed their desire to build inroads with conservative organizations.
“I think one of the directives we've gotten very clearly from Sundar [Pichai, Google’s CEO], his leadership is to build deeper relationships with conservatives. I think we've recognized that the company is generally seen as liberal by policymakers,” said Google’s U.S. head of public policy, Adam Kovacevich, according to Wired.
The hearings may be getting results for conservatives, but they are one big swing and a miss in addressing the many actual issues with tech companies. There’s reason to be wary of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and others in the tech space. Legislatively, the U.S. hasn’t kept up with other countries. For instance, the European Union recently implemented the General Data Protection Regulation, a set of rules outlining the steps companies must take before gathering and storing user information. Though some states have taken steps to enact their own data policies, there aren’t any major consumer protections at the federal level to speak of.
Now is the time for lawmakers to be having discussions with executives at these companies, but the topic needs to change from an overwhelming focus on the idea of political bias to questions of how our data is being collected and used. Frankly, it’s embarrassing that so many of our lawmakers are complete technological neophytes, with some still barely able to get beyond the basic misunderstanding of the internet then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) demonstrated in 2006 with his “series of tubes” comment. For example, on Tuesday, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) wanted to know why his staff’s edits to his Wikipedia page kept getting removed, claiming that Google should be liable for the online encyclopedia’s content because the search engine has given it a “trusted spot.” (Google pulls some data from Wikipedia entries, but it’s worth noting that it’s actually against Wikipedia’s guidelines to edit your own page.) Rep. Steve King (R-IA) needed to be reminded that Google doesn’t make iPhones. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) repeatedly asked -- while, like King, holding up an iPhone, which doesn’t come with Google software installed -- whether Google could track his movement within a room via the device.
“I now know how it feels to work at the Genius Bar in Arlington,” tweeted New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose.
Had these lawmakers been even slightly more tech adept (or at least willing to brush up on some of the current controversies facing companies like Google), there’s a lot they could have actually accomplished. Vox reporter Emily Stewart published a list of topics committee members could have more thoroughly addressed had they not been so laser-focused on bias. For instance, how does Google use our data for mobile advertising? Does the company plan to make changes following a $5 billion judgment in an EU antitrust case? Or why didn’t Google self-report on the massive Google+ data breach the company discovered earlier this year?
Political media seem less interested in issues of substance than in he said/she said accusations of bias -- and that’s a problem.
Moments before the start of Pichai’s opening remarks, CNN’s Poppy Harlow hyped the event as “what could be a very tense hearing on Capitol Hill,” noting that “Google's CEO will testify publicly for the first time, facing allegations of political bias against conservatives.” That evening, CNN International’s Quest Means Business host Richard Quest interviewed media correspondent Brian Stelter, again discussing the question of bias.
On Fox News, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) joined Tucker Carlson to talk about … bias. Jordan went on a short rant about Google and Twitter -- repeating a debunked claim that Twitter had “shadowbanned” conservatives -- and at Carlson’s suggestion, threatened to punish the companies with regulation and legislation that would scare them into making gestures to placate the political right.
How tech companies handle our data and the effects of that data being handled poorly are not sexy topics. Certainly, the thought that there are politically motivated people putting their thumbs on the search engine scale to disadvantage one political party or another is a more exciting angle. While it’s not clear whether it’s lawmakers taking their cue from media or the other way around, news media do a major disservice to their audiences when they put so much emphasis on factually dubious claims of bias. Instead, they should be helping readers and viewers better understand why policymaking around data collection matters and what the real-world consequences of inaction by our legislators could be. As always, covering politics as though it’s some sort of sport makes the world a more divided and less understanding place. If media organizations feel compelled to cover claims of bias, they owe it to the public to plainly say that these allegations are simply not backed up by the facts.