The world’s most powerful company claims political bias plays no role in its day-to-day operations. Yet how do we explain its funding of left-leaning media amid elections and calls to regulate the Silicon Valley monolith?
Google, headquartered in Mountain View, California, has announced recently it will be funding 34 media organizations in North America – 29 in the US, four in Canada, and one that has remained undisclosed. The project is being undertaken by the so-called Google News Initiative (GNI), a three-year, $300 million effort designed to “help journalism thrive in the digital age.” Too bad that so few people thought to ask, however, if it is really Google’s job to meddle in journalism.
The fact that Google is financing media organizations at all is in itself very problematic. After all, from the time of its founding, the search engine giant was expected to remain a neutral platform from which clients could freely access a variety of news and information; the more popular selections among users would automatically rise – in pure democratic fashion – to the top of the searches. However, in our post-Russiagate, fake news media hell-scape, Google has taken it upon itself to manually steer the algorithms, which in effect gives audiences a distorted perception of reality. Let’s call it the ‘Google reality’.
The situation becomes doubly disconcerting when it is understood there is a clear political bias in Google’s decision-making process. This is obvious by the organizations GNI has decided to partner with on various projects. Among the 29 various groups, as detailed by Neiman Lab, is the Dallas Morning News, which supported Hillary Clinton for president in the 2016 election. The newspaper will receive, among other freebies, a cash infusion for a “searchable guide to pre-K through 12 education in North Texas” to assist parents in choosing the right schools for their kids.
Another lucky recipient of Google’s largesse is Fox News (sorry, that was a joke I could not resist). In fact, it is the Salt Lake City Tribune, which backed Barack Obama in his 2012 bid for the presidency. This week, the newspaper carried a provocative opinion piece by David Brooks, entitled, ‘Impeach Trump. And then move on’. It’s safe to say that would never be confused as a conservative message. The Tribune will get GNI funding in support of the Utah Journalism Foundation to “accelerate our transition by building out a critical and innovative series of tools, policies and procedures.”
Meanwhile, Google also singled out a partnership with the Lenfest Institute, which partners with the Democracy Fund, Facebook, and the Bezos-owned Washington Post, one of the most prominent left-wing media outlets. With Google’s financial blessing, Lenfest will team up with the Philadelphia Inquirer to distribute newsletters in the region that will “empower residents to stay informed and connect with their neighbors.”
Google News Initiative is just one of many media projects the company has endorsed over the last decade. According to a comprehensive report by the Google Transparency Project (GTP), the IT giant and related entities “has committed between $567 million and $569 million to support at least 1,157 media projects around the globe.” GTP said that another 170 projects financed by Google contained no funding information, thereby indicating the total amount of spending is possibly much greater.
Ironically, despite being the king of internet searches, Google has fallen far behind on the transparency front.
The Google watchdog said the California-based company “isn’t always transparent about its spending,” which presents a challenge for anyone hoping to understand what sort of financial handouts the company is awarding, and what it may expect in return for its money.
This leads to the critical question: Why does Google spend so much of its funds “supporting the future of journalism”? Does the generosity come without any strings attached, or does Google expect something in return for its money? Like any major corporation whose major concern is the bottom line and continual growth, it’s safe to say Google is looking for some quid pro quo. And that is exactly the conclusion that can be drawn judging by recent events, which include not only the most momentous and consequential presidential election in recent memory, but an American public that is growing wary of Google’s immense power and influence. Here’s where it gets interesting. As GTP pointed out in its report, Google tends to get very generous with handouts during those times when it is confronted with “legal and regulatory threats.”
Thus, it can’t just be written off as coincidence theory that Google is attempting to build a cozy, cash-cushioned relationship with various media organizations at a time when US politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, as well as numerous antitrust regulators, are speaking about smashing up the behemoth IT company into tiny bite-sized pieces. At the same time, Google senior executives have even been asked to testify before Congress on the question of their alleged political bias. Clearly, Google is feeling some heat. Whether all of this is just empty chatter for public consumption amid a contentious election cycle remains unclear, but Google doesn’t seem to be taking any chances.
This state of affairs presents a serious dilemma for the cash-strapped media industry where advertising dollars are shrinking and publications are going out of business. In this current period of uncertainty, the world of journalism is growing increasingly dependent for its revenue on Google, which wields, in addition to fantastic wealth, enough algorithmic firepower to determine if a media outlet should, quite literally, live or die. That is a frightening thing to consider. When a media organization is forced to operate under a virtual algorithmic Sword of Damocles, it will become much more cautious about biting the hand that feeds it.
Since its founding in 1998, Google was guided by the simple motto, ‘Don’t be evil’. That memo to itself carried the implicit understanding that the company, by virtue of it being the world’s clearinghouse of news and information, could wreak real havoc if it wanted to.
In recent months, a string of whistleblowers (here, here, and here) began to pull back the company’s heavy curtain, which revealed more than just a bunch of fun-loving computer nerds enjoying generous campus perks, like bean-bag chairs, free food and on-site fitness club. Insiders, like James Damore, a former Google engineer-turned whistleblower, described a radically different atmosphere behind the feel-good facade. Despite these PC-conscious and very woke times, Damore said that being a political conservative at Google in 2017 is like “being gay in the 1950s.”
If Google displays this sort of intolerance to its employees who espouse right-leaning views, then it is reasonable to ask if the company is monkeying with its algorithms to prevent conservative and alternative media from receiving fair representation in the competitive field of search results. Judging by damning documents released by whistleblowers, which include a blacklist top-heavy with conservative voices, the company is (allegedly) working overtime to manipulate the political landscape to its liking. In other words, to “prevent the next Trump situation,” as one senior Google executive candidly admitted to an undercover reporter from Project Veritas. Google denies that it plays political favorites, yet the record strongly suggests otherwise.
All things considered, Google is creating the conditions for a digitalized form of tyranny where they have become empowered, through their direct influence in newsrooms worldwide, to determine not only what political message the public hears above all others. It has purchased the power to ensure that the media never turns its investigative attention on Google’s global empire, which, for the time being, remains practically above the law. The world of media should have never allowed itself to get trapped in such a relationship.
Google’s ability to literally alter reality with the manipulation of its algorithms represents one of the deepest threats to democracy today, and must be challenged. Even by those media organizations that benefit from Google’s immense wealth.
By Robert Bridge