Dr. Robert Epstein, a psychologist, professor, and author, spoke about the impact big tech companies have on shaping the views of the American public, the world, and potentially, even our elections.
Epstein and his team, including 733 field agents, took a deep dive into how tech companies like Google utilize ephemeral experiences to influence views. His team essentially looked over the shoulders of their field agents to record and monitor what they saw on their computers’ internet pages. The field agents were a fairly even mix of registered Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.
“Ephemeral experiences like search results or reminders on the homepage, or search suggestions, news feeds, they’re ephemeral. They appear in front of your eyes, they impact you, they disappear, they’re gone forever. No one can go back in time and see what these companies were showing people or saying to people on their personal assistant devices,” Epstein said.
They preserved more than half a million “ephemeral experiences” including search results from Google, Yahoo, Bing, Facebook home pages, and YouTube sequences.
During the week of Oct. 26—a critical time before the election—only his liberal field agents were getting reminders to vote.
“Our field agents who identified themselves as liberal, they all got this vote Reminder, in Google’s homepage, I can say that, among those who can, who call themselves conservative, not a single person, not a single person saw that reminder on the homepage,” Epstein said.
He deliberately emailed this finding on Oct. 29 to the New York Post, knowing Google would be seeing what Epstein was saying. That night, this targeted messaging abruptly stopped, and all field agents were sent reminders.
Epstein said people at these companies know the huge impact these ephemeral experiences could have on their users.
He referenced a leaked email between Google employees to the Wall Street Journal in 2018. Epstein says they discussed how they could “use ephemeral experiences to change people’s views about Trump’s travel ban. He also said he saw a leaked video of Google employees using the phrases “re-engineer humanity in a way that reflects company values.”
Epstein also spoke of “a secret Google project called Dragonfly, in which Google was working on with the Chinese government, to help them control their population.”
“In effect, they’re acknowledging” that ephemeral experiences are being used in a “deliberative and strategic” way.
He spoke of how the actions of these companies could even make a difference in our elections.
“If all the Silicon Valley companies, the most powerful two being Google, and Facebook, if they’re all pushing in the same direction, that could easily shift in this election 15 million votes, which means they, in effect, decide who the next president is going to be.
“If we allow companies like Google to control the outcome of our elections, then we have no democracy, there is no free and fair election, all of that is illusory,” he said.
Epstein added that constant and widespread monitoring is necessary for people to fight back against being manipulated. He said laws and regulations take too long to keep up with the rapid development of technology, so he wants to fight “bad tech with good tech.”
Epstein clarified that he was only explaining the data he collected and was not making any allegations. His team will continue to analyze the information in the days ahead and report the results.