Google is the gatekeeper of what is true in our society. For anyone in need of convincing, just consider how many arguments have only been resolved after somebody “googles it”.
Today all Australians were greeted with an ominous warning on googles front page. The warning was not of a natural disaster or impending doom but an advertisement in disguise on behalf of Google itself.
In response to Government regulation, Google drafted a media response containing misinformation that the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) has since refuted here. The purpose of this release was to leverage its position as the foremost dispenser of truth and manufacture public pressure against a piece of law that would cost the company money. With a market cap of over 1 trillion dollars, they have a lot to protect.
Although the proposed Government intervention is deeply flawed and counterproductive, the ease at which Google flexed its muscles so blatantly is far more disturbing.
This weaponisation of information and trust is the first time Google has adapted the function of its search engine to propagate propaganda. For over 20 years the Google search tab has been neutral ground for searching. For over 20 years Google was merely an interface or a tool to find information in a giant online library, using links to various pages that were understood to be independent of Google itself. Recently, in a foray to provide filtered yet concise information, Google’s Natural Questions Lab has provided answers to non-controversial, factual questions such as “when are hops added to the brewing process?” or “who is the author of the book Arabian Nights?”. Today it blatantly weaponized the functionality of the search engine to promote self-serving misinformation and propaganda.
This is likely to be the start of a trend that companies like Facebook and Amazon will employ to sway public opinion as they face mounting regulatory pressure across the globe.
This also raises serious antitrust issues and competition violations. Why is google allowed to display advertisements reserved only for their purposes? Google should not have unique access to channels of information that local and small businesses are blocked from accessing. More importantly, however, it highlights how these trillion-dollar companies have asymmetric access to the flow of information and the ability for them to implement sweeping misinformation campaigns.
Merely posting advertisement and propaganda under the guise of a warning is seriously concerning. So much of the information humans consume is unconscious and depends on the environment it was consumed. An official-looking warning on the main page of the world pre-eminent distributor of truth is completely different from a sponsored ad in the corner of your screen. It will be interesting to see how many people will accept these “warnings” at face value. I worry that the answer will be, “too many”.
If they were properly threatened, there is no reason they couldn’t manipulate their algorithms so silence or dampen online movements that impact their bottom line. For all the chaos Russia wreaked on the leading global superpower, with a few fake accounts, Google or Facebook could cause 10x the damage with an invisible tweak to its algorithms. News articles could be effectively given free advertisement or thrown into the trash by an editorial team that has zero accountability and comprised entirely of algorithms. Such course interventions are unlikely to be implemented soon and would carry immense risks, perhaps caused by morally upstanding employees who leak it to the very press they would be trying to coerce. Pushed into a corner, however, such actions would not be without precedent.
BUT you don’t need conspiracy theories to see the power they have. These trillion dollar companies have a lot to lose. This blatant and visible application of asymmetric information warfare should worry everyone.
When a 1 trillion-dollar company, can reach an entire country and deliver self-serving misinformation disguised as an official warning without paying a cent, alarm bells should be ringing.