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The New Mind Control – The internet has spawned subtle forms of influence (aeon.co)
259 points by mark_l_watson on Mar 9, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 203 comments



I have made this case before, but I will make it again.

The Internet is the largest information system in the world, and Google is the primary portal into that information system. Google's "organic" results are accompanied by AdWords results, which are based on a mixture of bid price and relevance. These ads are marked with a small "Ad" label that many people miss, and even those who know they're ads can't really "unsee" those results.

So, searching the world's largest information system provides results which have been biased by money. How does anyone consider this ethical? Why are we letting money influence the salience of information?

What if your local library (you know, those old things) had a card catalog with "sponsored" results? If this already exists, then maybe we're already lost. But it seems to me that as a basic rule of information ethics, the salience of information in a given information system should not be biased by monetary influence. Full stop, the end, no exceptions. If anyone has a counterargument, I would honestly love to hear it, because this has nagged at me for a long time. I simply can't understand how AdWords is ethical.


The library is a catalog of books produced by publishers for the sake of making money. Your example doesn't hold weight, as there is no "purity of information". Even your own insights are filtered through the perspective of your personal influence, your wants, your desires, your history, etc.

Google is no different. The organic search results are largely from commercial, or at a minimum, self-interested sources.

That doesn't make it wrong. There's huge value there. Just the same, money is not evil. It's a mechanism for storing value. It's imperfect, and abused, and certainly not the only measurement of value. Keeping those value systems in balance is the key.


I'm just saying I wish we could have only organic results. Why should people with more money have more of a presence online? Money shouldn't be able to buy speech.

The Internet should not be a place where those with more money get to cut the line in front of those with less. Let PageRank sort it out.

Also, what's this about my example not holding weight because "information purity" doesn't exist? It's not about the information itself being pure, it's about purity of ranking. Let's just spell this out:

money !== relevance, therefore any influence of money on search engine rankings is, by definition, noise.


Money always buys speech; whether it is by allowing a columnist to write full time, affording the puchase of a computer to post on the internet, or giving someone the ability to travel to a public square.

Using money to purchase a magazine, newspaper, television, radio, or online advertisement is just another way that money helps people express their views.

In any case, I wouldn't be too worried about money changing people's minds, as it rarely does that.[1] Advertisements and the like usually serve to give voice to the views people already hold, and inform them of things they were not aware of. An advertisement will never convince people to buy things they don't want and don't need; if you disagree, please go and try to sell a bad product, and we will see how well your 'mind control' works.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Righteous_Mind


Try to sell a bad product? It's done all the time. Heck, a tube of wax called "HeadOn" managed to sell pretty well with an ad campaign that stopped just short of claiming it helped headaches.


The fact that one product which seems to be a placebo may have made some money does not disprove my point; I never said it was completely impossible to make money by selling a bad product, just that it is vanishingly unlikely. If you think that selling diluted ingredients in wax is an easy way to make money, please go ahead and try your hand at it.

My position is that advertising a bad product is a very bad bet; the fact that someone has won the lottery does not mean that anyone should play it.


Are you kidding me?

Of the major companies out there, almost all of them made money from bad products. McDonald's food is so unhealthy it makes you ill almost immediately when it's even edible. Comcast is hated almost universally for their crap internet and crapper customer service. Fox News makes money by actively deceiving their customers. These aren't exceptions to the rule: these are the rule. They're leaders in their industries.


I disagree with you on every point here. McDonalds provides a consistent array of food and beverages across many countries, and many people (especially children) enjoy the experience in their restaurant. Comcast is often the only provider of Internet services, and in other instances provides faster or cheaper service than their competitors. Fox News is like every other news channel, in that it informs their viewers with the information the viewers want in a format they enjoy for a price they accept. Fox News is no more biased than CNN, NBC, or just about any other news sources; there is no arbiter of truth, and most of the perceived bias comes from the stories each outlet chooses to pursue.

I say this as a person who hasn't gone to McDonalds in 11 years, has no access to Comcast, and doesn't watch television news. The fact that you or I dislike a product does not make it 'bad'.


>The fact that you or I dislike a product does not make it 'bad'*

Yes. Bad requires either a quantifiable judgement (McDonalds fares poorly in healthiness, nutricients, calories and lots of other metrics), or a qualitative one, based on some sort of agreed ypon "what constitutes good food" standard -- which in the end comes from what vision one has for the world.

Even if the latter is not objectively verifiable (that a steak at Peter Luger is better than a Chipotle one for example), I still find a society where isn't enough common agreement to label McDonalds as bad, a sad one.


What does make a product bad then?


My definition of a bad product would simply one where the purchaser would not have bought it given the information they learned after acquiring it. A simple way to measure how good a product is would be to see whether the product is recommended by the purchaser, or whether they buy similar products from the same brand/source again.


Ah so you don't mean good and bad in terms of morality or the harm it will bring to the user but solely upon consumption preference. By this definition crystal meth can be considered a good product.


If these things are so bad, why do people consume them?

Is everybody else but you so stupid as to be consuming these obviously 'bad' products?

Just because you think something is bad, doesn't mean it is bad. I would have no trouble selling something you think is the 'worst shit in the known universe' as long as everybody else thinks it's pretty good.


People consume bad products because they are in bad circumstances. Maybe they are too stressed to cook and can't afford a healthier alternative, and then become addicted to the sugar content (McDonald's), maybe the company has a monopoly on something people need for work and school so people have to buy it (Comcast), or maybe human psychology makes us susceptible to certain kinds of deception (Fox News).

Claiming that a product can't be bad if people consume it is incredibly naive.


You raise an interesting point. Do people consume things they know are bad because they want to or because they are manipulated to?


And here's Stimpy with the red shiny history eraser button...


I am ashamed that I had to look up this reference.


I should probably be ashamed that I brought it up :)


Because they are laced with a highly addictive substance? Why else would HFCS be added to fries or a burger, to make them sweet?


Because "bad" outside of context is utterly meaningless.


> McDonald's food is so unhealthy it makes you ill almost immediately when it's even edible.

Oh please, I had a Big Mac meal for lunch today, delicious!


>I never said it was completely impossible to make money by selling a bad product,

from last comment in the thread -

>An advertisement will _never_ convince people to buy things they don't want and don't need; if you disagree, please go and try to sell a bad product, and we will see how well your 'mind control' works.

le contradiction


"We just had a misunderstanding, I thought I lived in the U.S.A, the United States of America, and actually we live in the U.S.A, The United States of Advertising -- freedom of speech is guaranteed, if you've got the money!"

-Bill Hicks on being censored by CBS


Bill Hicks was both wonderful and a very talented troll.


> Why should people with more money have more of a presence online? Money shouldn't be able to buy speech.

How is this not implicitly the case with "only organic" search results? PageRank was built off of the idea that a website's value was based off of inbound links. Back in the day, high school kids could get $50/hour (in 1990s dollars) to build and upload a simple webpage for a local business. Money has always been a factor in influence, before and after search engines.

> It's not about the information itself being pure, it's about purity of ranking

Again, this purity is an illusion -- the things that can be objectively ranked are things in which the metric is simple, i.e. alphabetical order. Stray from that and rankings are no longer "pure" by any stretch of the imagination. Not even early PageRank -- the many easy ways to game it, and the many ways that PageRank has evolved to avoid such gaming, should make that assertion self-evident.


Money is absolutely part of the formulation of relevance. It's just not the whole equation. Nor is word-matching (altavista), nor is popularity (google). But each is relevant.

Someone (advertiser) is paying money because they believe they have information relevant to you. How is that categorically different than the blogger/webmaster who's paying money (time/hosting) because they believe they have information relevant to you?

All information has a cost associated with it. And that cost bears some significance on the value of the information. Measuring and weighing that significance relative to other inputs is the beauty of an effective system.


At the risk of sounding flip: Install adblock. If this "purity" is really that important to you, you're about 3 clicks away from banishing the paid advertising and only having organic results show.


I use AB+ AND NoScript(Google-free whitelist) and my results aren't even organic-ish. I searched for cabling a few weeks back & monoprice.com's first result was on page 12. First 3 or 4 pages were almost exclusively amazon & ebay. That's google's algo, sans adsense.


And those are organic results, not paid ones. The algo has learned that when people search for a product, having results from the most common places up front is more relevant.

Monoprice's google juice just isn't as good.


I don't think sponsored results are a big deal, as long as it's transparent, and "pure" results are easily accessible too (and they are).

We live in a society where advertising exists. I'm not saying I like advertising, but it is a basic skill to be able to differentiate advertising from content. If some people can't tell the difference, I don't think that's a very strong argument for saying the practice should be banned.

Having some cruft around my search results is a small price to pay for a free service that basically powers modern society.


Power buys presence. Whether that power is national and the presence armed excursions, or the power is political and the presence is your ideas being heard from your pulpit. Money is just a proxy for other types of power. This has never changed.


Then you can keep claiming your results are non-biased long after it stop being organic as these things tend to do with fresh people and their friends with same mindset. I've come to dismiss everything that claims to be neutral. DailyMail, Guardian, the sheets of toilet paper, all used for the same purpose.


PageRank isn't transparent and objective, it is opaque and arbitrary.


PageRank is of ... anthropically/existentially significant importance to the continuation of Google as a going concern.

You can't trust people to be transparent about things that are anthropically significant and that they realize are anthropically significant. Now throw in that it's legally protected as proprietary...

It's just one of those things...

The fact that Stallman cannot or will not accept this troubles me. I view this as a mechanism for choosing continued disappointment on his part. But it does serve as part of a dialogue.


The library doesn't make money through directing you to particular books or sell publishers your reading habits.


That's because the library is funded by taxpayers – it doesn't need the money.

How would you feel about a government-sponsored search engine? I think China has one of those.


If the queries were totally anonymized to protect it from the government itself, and the information provided was thorough and unbiased, I wouldn't have a problem with it at all.

If it were done the way China does it, I would.

A service offered by the government is really only as trustworthy as the government that's offering it. Do you have a problem with Xinhua News Agency? What about PBS or the BBC?


How would you feel about a for-profit Wikipedia?

> Today's features article: McDonalds!


Quite frankly, it might not be the worst solution. Britain has a government-sponsored TV station which is generally pretty well-regarded, for example...


Government-sponsored is totally different than government-led. China has the latter in terms of their search engine.


Indeed -- but the grandparent talked about "government-sponsored."


So we'll all be happy to do our searches through NSA.gov? Or would you prefer the alternative, google.nsa.gov?

We can even make searches like FOIA requests, where if you search something they don't like, they redact the results you wanted, and if you don't phrase the search correctly, they just give you nothing.


The BBC is sponsored by a licence fee collected from British people, whether they want to pay for the BBC or not.

Similarly, if the government pays for a search engine, they'll be paying with taxes taken from us anyway.


Yeah, so?


So what's better about paying via taxes instead of paying directly?


When something is paid for directly (and consequentially cannot be afforded by some), it will be biased towards the opinions of its backers, and thus, the wealthy.


And when it's paid for by the government, it will be biased towards the opinions of government officials, their backers, and thus, the wealthy (or the influential, in a political system where money has less influence than in the US).


>The library is a catalog of books produced by publishers for the sake of making money.

That's not what he asked though. Generally libraries don't have special "sponsored" books, and don't control and push certain books to people more than others.

Those libraries that do, fall into 2 categories:

1) Promoting widely recognized cultural works (e.g. with events like "Mark Twain Year", etc).

2) Promoting some ideological agenda (e.g. a creationist library in a religious school).

The latter are dangerous.

Google, besides the opportunities for pushing its own corporate/political agenda, has also financial motives for pushing ads/brands.

Besides there's another key difference: there are thousands upon thousands of libraries (and people don't care much about them anyway). There's only one Google (and the majority of web users use it everyday).

>That doesn't make it wrong.

I wonder what some people DO find wrong. Apart from things like cannibalism and hurting kittens, which we all probably agree on.


You're missing the point that organic results are also hugely influenced by financial motive. The underlying concept is that all information is biased.

A system that incorporates bias is vastly more useful than one that ignores it.


> The underlying concept is that all information is biased.

Right, but why add more bias if we don't have to?

Organic results are influenced by the content of the pages as well as their relationship to other pages. Sure, people spend thousands of dollars on SEO to make their page more attractive to Google, but at least they're trying to fit Google's idea of what makes a useful web page. With AdWords, money is directly influencing rank. Why is it good for Google to incorporate more financial bias than it has to?


"Wrong" is at best ordinal. Not absolute. We make up our own lines we won't cross and then complain because others disagree.


Read the original PageRank paper. Page and Brin themselves acknowledge that (while they were still academics):

[L]ess blatant bias are likely to be tolerated by the market. For example, a search engine could add a small factor to search results from "friendly" companies, and subtract a factor from results from competitors. This type of bias is very difficult to detect but could still have a significant effect on the market. Furthermore, advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results. For example, we noticed a major search engine would not return a large airline’s homepage when the airline’s name was given as a query. It so happened that the airline had placed an expensive ad, linked to the query that was its name. A better search engine would not have required this ad, and possibly resulted in the loss of the revenue from the airline to the search engine. In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines. However, there will always be money from advertisers who want a customer to switch products, or have something that is genuinely new. But we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.


For example, a search engine could add a small factor to search results from "friendly" companies, and subtract a factor from results from competitors.

Google absolutely does this - for example, to a site that I own.

So it's not just theory: Google has put it into practice.


Unless you're talking about AdWords, it is not possible to pay Google in any way to improve the ranking of your site.


In this case, my site is subject to the "subtract a factor from results from competitors", but that's equivalent to Google's preferred site buying rank.

Unless you're talking about AdWords, it is not possible to pay Google in any way to improve the ranking of your site.

Only officially.


This was obvious back when Yahoo, WebSpider (Spidercrawler), AskJeeves, and AltaVista did it.

It was ridiculous that you would type in "Delta Airlines tickets" and the results would go: United Airlines, TWA, Fly By Night Corp, Rickety Rickshaw Airlines, We Barely Stay in the Air, and DuctTape & Flights.

The results were so bad that when Google came along and used the PageRank feature to deliver information, it was a godsend (Thanks God). Try searching for something on Google today and there is a high likelihood that you find or at least get close to it.

Just remembering how bad it was back in the day until the web search engines got their act together and became Bing and Google.


Has Google ever officially stated that they've done away with the old practice of buying rank? The same thing happens now, just unofficially. Employees of Google manipulate its search rankings, even if there is no "official" way for companies to purchase rank.


   Why are we letting money influence the salience of information?
Because it's the only practical and effective way anyone has every come up with of building such a system?

This isn't a comment on the ethical nature - just that I don't believe there was any point where you could choose between commercial drivers to the growth of the "information system", and any other approach that would have resulted in similar growth. If the commercial explosion on the web hadn't happened, we wouldn't have anything like the same scope as we do now. For good or ill.


Ah, the "Omelas" bargain. Fair enough.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ones_Who_Walk_Away_from_Om...

It sucks that the idea of funding Google via taxes is anathema to so many because people fear government influence. So basically we're stuck between government influence and monetary influence. I wish there was a third way that we could crowdfund a platform without making it beholden to any specific set of donors.


"It sucks that the idea of funding Google via taxes is anathema to so many because people fear government influence"

That wouldn't fix the problem. Ultimately, somebody has to decide & implement what goes into the ranking algorithm that determines the search results that people see. That person has significant power, and will be both decried by intellectuals who feel like they're on the losing edge of the power dynamic, and courted by donors/lobbyists/etc. who wish to gain some of that power. If it were funded by taxation, you would see the same distrust that the FBI and NSA face today (both of which are funded by taxation). If it were crowdfunding, it'd be exactly the same problem that Google faces today - Google's AdWords auction essentially is crowdfunding, and if you give Google money, you get to influence the ads shown on some subset of queries. (Try it - you can get started in 10 minutes for a few bucks.)

What would fix the problem is if people didn't blindly trust Google, and instead researched in-depth on a number of competing search engines. The article alludes to this - Google's power comes from monopoly, and competition is the way to negate that power. But this only fixes the specific case of Google - if you broke up Google into many competing search engines, then Facebook would simply become the 800 lb. gorilla of how people get their information. Break up Facebook, and it becomes Reddit. Last century, it was ABC/NBC/CBS, and before then, Pulitzer and Hearst (who were a lot more unethical than Google was...Hearst started a war so he could sell more papers).

You can't avoid power, you can only understand it, and perhaps manipulate it so it serves yourself better.


It's at least theoretically possibly to configure the search engine to their liking, or the search algorithm would be open-source and vetted democratically.

So yes, you cannot avoid power, but you can distribute it or shine a light on it.


I've never heard of this idea before, it's actually very interesting.


Like Kickstarter with a low "max donation" amount?


There are only so many options in this world. Yes it sucks that unicorns dont exist.


I disagree entirely.

The essential point I want to make is that just because you have a right to something, does not mean you have a right to the material implementation of that right. (Because that would mean you had a right to the labour and property of others, i.e. a right to violate their rights).

You have a right to free speech. You do not have the right to publish your opinions in any outlet of your choice (because that would violate the publishers' rights). Even if you lived in a small town with only one newspaper, and they wouldn't print your letters to the editor, it still wouldn't be right for you to compel them to print your letters by legal means. They built the audience, its their right to communicate with them as they see fit. (This isn't censorship, because you're still free to hand out flyers in the street, start your own newspaper, sue the existing newspaper if they commit libel, etc).

Your argument is essentially that because Google is "the world's largest information system", we shouldn't be "letting" them put whatever content they want on their pages, for whatever reason they want. The implication is that if someone builds something really useful, that thing should become public property. (People are saying the same thing about Twitter).

AdWords is absolutely moral because a privately-run service needs a source of funding. (I should note that I do think many PPC ad networks are exploitative and immoral, but that's not the case for Google).

Unless someone sets up a nonprofit search engine run by donations, the only alternative is a public, state-funded search engine -- that's the only way to get an "information system not biased by money". On the unlikely possibility that the state could build and maintain such a system, it would be the most powerful tool for potential censorship imaginable.


Personally I've found Google to be frustratingly difficult to search in recent years. I can't find articles & essays that I remember fondly because the namespace is so polluted with Great SEO.


Google is getting worse. I find that restricting date range in search tools can provide more useful results. But I'm not sure why.


Thank you I will try that, especially when I know I'm looking for an article written N years ago.


Have you fond a better search engine? I keep failing to find what I need on DuckDuckGo or it's kin and having to go onto Google, where I find what I was looking for.

Of course, one can always suggest that I am just better attuned to Google (I have Google Fu from long experience with Google and wrongfully expect DuckDuckGo Fu to be the same skill and have not developed DuckDuckGo Fu).


I'd suggest spending some time learning DDG. It is a very good engine once you get used to it.

Another trick I use with Google, especially when I'm searching things that are outside of my usual interests, is clearing my cookies. Best I can tell, this makes it skip the statistical model of me that, say, suggests 'logging' is more about daemon output than about killing trees.

Now if only all the engines didn't have such a bias towards "new" material. My major search-related frustration over the last while has been how buried things become over time, especially if they share identifying lexemes with things in the news.


> I keep failing to find what I need on DuckDuckGo or it's kin and having to go onto Google

What's an example of a search that fails to find what you need?


There's been a dozen things I've tried to search on HN, for example, looking for keywords and there's literally dozens of other links with similar topics that prevents me from finding what I looked for.

Various programming questions. Don't have an example right now, sorry.


"intitle:duckduckgo site:news.ycombinator.com" and then further narrowing down by restricting to past year.


You can use "!hn duckduckgo" that usually works better.


I doubt that works "better" and certainly there is no bang for every site.


No, DDG often fails me too. Especially when searching for programmer things -- sometimes what I really meant to search for is StackOverflow.com + any "programming blog.

Search for programmers?

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the internet is a great idea but the implementation sucks and there's no easy way to fix it.


Money buys speech.

I also used to fantasize about the democratization of speech via the internet. No longer would money determine what information reached you.

Adwords is no less ethical than search rankings, newspapers, TV, radio, literature, bus stops, music - reality, ultimately. Reality is for sale.

Good news: I agree that this is a problem. Bad news: It's incredibly more prevalent than you realize.

If communication of information isn't democratized, you can't have a democracy. It shouldn't be a surprise then that we don't have a democracy, but an oligarchy [1].

Mind you, this is just one of many factors that makes a true democracy impossible as they currently exist. [2]

1 http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_law_of_oligarchy


We want speech to be pure and abstract. So this relegates money to our expression of the venal.

Then we find this, and wonder why it bothers us.

You are ultimately responsible for your own perceptions.


>You are ultimately responsible for your own perceptions.

Would you consider a Muslim born and raised in the Maldives, where the state and populous are all Muslim and questioning the status quo can result in severe injury and incarceration, personally responsible for their views even though they are denied alternative perspectives?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_the_Maldives


Yes.


What if your local library (you know, those old things) had a card catalog with "sponsored" results? If this already exists, then maybe we're already lost. But it seems to me that as a basic rule of information ethics, the salience of information in a given information system should not be biased by monetary influence.

But it is biased! The card catalog might be an unbiased representation of what the library has- but have you considered that what the library has is biased by monetary influence? What the book costs. Whether the book is demanded (advertising). Jacket design (you grab the most interesting-looking book).

The flaw to libraries is their naturally limited capacity.


But it seems to me that as a basic rule of information ethics, the salience of information in a given information system should not be biased by monetary influence. Full stop, the end, no exceptions.

Luckily, the world does not have to conform to your standards. What you are arguing for is authoritarianism, that your opinion be forced upon actors. This kind of thinking is exactly what erodes the basis for innovation and liberty. Google is the top search engine because their results are just unmatched in quality. If you don't like the results of google, then visit another search engine - or better, create a better one that conforms to your puritan principles. But please don't tell others what to do, and for goodness' sake, please don't involve the state and more legislation in this.


Maybe because libraries are not private compaines? I mean, you mention competitors not having the revenue to crawl an increasingly complex web. But how else do you see them being able to facilitate this without a similar advertising strategy to Google?

I just have little patience for complaints about free products like Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. They cost you nothing but time and attention - both of which you have complete control over.


'House of Cards' recently explored this issue with their fake search engine, Pollyhop. The (fictional) results were.... unsettling to say the least.


The ads you see for a given search are highly likely to be profitable (since it is so easy to track and manage). That means people are clicking on those links, and a reasonable fraction of those clicks are being converted. From this, I would like to posit that the profitability of an ad is directly related to the product or service's relevance/value to the user (barring deceptive advertising).

Lets also assume that people buying the ads are willing to increase their ad bid until the cost per acquisition approaches equilibrium with the expected lifetime value. Over time, this should result in only the most profitable ads being displayed. This implies that only the most valuable/relevant ads are being displayed, given the point previously posited.

Thus, over the long term, assuming a fairly efficient market and some restriction on deceptive advertising, the ads can be thought of as an alternate form of result, with a very direct, user-centric ranking metric.

Would it be more palatable if the SERPs were divided into two columns, one being "web search results" and the other being clearly labeled "product/service search results"?


Just because a product or service is profitable it doesn't mean it's a good product or it's not a scam, and in the case of Google results the companies can make the honest reviews of the product rank lower or basically hide them in the second page of results with their paid ads, which is making it harder for the consumers to figure out the real quality of the product before buying. Of course not every organic result is honest but ads can make it worse.


I don't think it's so bad, and more importantly I don't see the solution. Google does what it does to make money, and ads are how it does that. If there's a more ethical solution it'll only be implemented if it's also more profitable. All that is fine with me; Google doesn't have any obligations to me or you or anyone besides their shareholders.


"I don't see any problem with the way the world's most powerful system for freeing the mind has been co-opted by for-profit enterprise. I am ignorant of any possible alternatives. Capitalist businesses sell goods and services in exchange for money. I accept that no effort will be made to find more ethical alternatives unless it can produce even more money. We as a society have no control or influence over what individual actors do, and thus no discussion of possible alternatives is necessary."


Your highlighting of "for-profit enterprise" takes me back to old Catholic anti-usury biases. They are rather juvenile. I'm also unsure of how you managed to reduce "capitalism" to the mere monetary exchange economy, which completely evaporates all substance out of the already butchered term. I also hope your idea of "ethical alternatives" doesn't involve what amounts to state corporatism, which all the progressives and Galbraith types are enamored with for some reason. The modern left knows nothing of Proudhon, Bakunin or Kropotkin. It's all top-down planning for them.


I don't believe I've said anything about why I dislike for-profit enterprise controlling the world's most valuable institution, so I'm unsure how you could correctly infer my reasons for feeling that way. As far as capitalism, my statement was factually correct and I made no attempt to fully describe the institution. In fact I disagree that capitalism equates to the monetary exchange economy, as the latter has existed far longer than the former. I've made no recommendations for what the alternatives might be, only mocked the idea that, since the parent can't think of anything, we shouldn't ask the question. In fact your assumption that I am for centralized State Capitalism (to use Richard Wolff's definition of Capitalism) and top-down planning is again false. I subscribe to Marx's suggestion that workers should own the means of production, and do a reasonable amount of reading to support that belief.

In short, most of what you've assumed is incorrect.


The Bakunin critique of Marx is then relevant, since the dictatorship of the proletariat is trivially hijacked by vanguardist interests. Moreover, Marx's diagnosis of capitalist breakdown in Vol. III of Capital has failed the test. The scenario of rising organic composition of capital (ratio of constant capital to variable capital) triggering a falling rate of profit and a growing reserve army of labor has not played out. Marxists scrambled to revise the thesis. Lenin and Luxemburg proposed imperialism. Rudolf Hilferding spoke of "finance capital". Ernest Mandel himself identified a stage of "late capitalism" borrowing in turn from Sweezy and Baran's "monopoly capital". Prebisch and Furtado developed the dependency theory model of international trade. The interpretations of capitalism are so numerous that Marxism has become incoherent in explaining it, aside from the problems of historical materialism as a method of historiography with its overt bias to economic determinism.

Ideal scenarios of worker cooperatives and revolutionary syndicalism haven't at all materialized. Instead, it has led to platformist organizations that are the laughing stock of anarchism. Don't forget that Georges Sorel's idea of national syndicalism developed from his Marxist revisionism ended up giving us Spanish and Italian fascism.


People's moral, values, tastes obviously come from artificial (is that the right word?) sources, so where do we want them coming from? Do we want people inundated by so many contradictory opinions that they become paralyzed like Hamlet? Do we want people to be able to argue in favor of any opinion and therefore be unable to be captured by any opinion? (In which case, we should have all students participate in National Forensics League's Cross-Examination debate.)

Mind control is not new, what is new is having so many people try to control each individual mind in so many ways. In the Egypt of ~1500 B.C. or in the society that produced the Epic of Gilgamesh, there were so few voices heard per brain that many thoughts were "heard" in the brain with the voices of those who first uttered them to that brain. Now we hear words from so many voices (and read them silently) such that they don't have a particular voice in our brain. Each individual command or religious proclamation was much harder to critique or resist. Power, including monetary power, has always influenced salience of information and always will.

We need a positive conception of what we want—a purely negative conception that just wants no outside influence on another's thoughts... makes no sense. It means no schools, no media, no habitat / creature interaction whatsoever!

Your local library does have a biased card catalog based on what officials decide to buy and keep. Even donated books are subjected to processes and must be approved by staff.

If adwords is unethical, how should we expect Google to operate? If people paid for search, they could get more helpful results, but how are they going to get the resources to pay for it? Most people no longer pay sustainable prices for news, software, music, or videos. Is that ethical?

Page and Brin: "advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results. For example, we noticed a major search engine would not return a large airline’s homepage when the airline’s name was given as a query. It so happened that the airline had placed an expensive ad, linked to the query that was its name. A better search engine would not have required this ad, and possibly resulted in the loss of the revenue from the airline to the search engine. In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines."

One could read this in a unwonted way: sometimes internet companies have to provide an intentionally poorer service in order to get the revenue needed to provide any service at all.

Money !== relevance, but money is a strict subset of relevance; it is certainly not noise. I'm more worried about its influence being against my interests than being a more chaotic / passive obstacle to my interests.

We shouldn't talk about money buying speech without an eye to what buys money. Should everyone get equal time on the networks and equal space in the newspapers until they look like comments sections / public access / twitter / facebook, too? Until Donald Trump looks like a moderate? If there's no centralized propoganda forming a "Common Core", then there's no basis for a society and Babel is the result. So things need to be balanced somehow. I feel afraid, too, about Google. Obviously Eric Schmidt and I are not equals, because he is the chairman of the Defense Innovation Advisory Board that will revamp the DOD's technology, he is the head of The Groundwork that is the tech heart of the Hillary campaign, and he is the head of the company that controls what we get to look at through the internet.

"So basically we're stuck between government influence and monetary influence."

Well, and the government is heavily influenced by money through campaign donations and the Clinton foundation (and similar groups) and the government heavily influences money through grants and stimulus and prosecutions and fines and regulations and so on. What's important is to try to diversify the influence and try to spread it out and get enough "blood" flowing to the parts that will benefit from that. These elements will always be in flux and we need to figure out what we want the system as a whole to look like.

"Money is not just a tool. I think it would be possible to make the case that money as it interacts with our systems is inherently unethical in that it forces unethical behavior from agents trying to maximize their utility. And the legal system that we have built around it only amplifies this behavior."

I don't know what you consider ethical or if you know what you consider ethical. How is money not just a tool? It's a counting mechanism, but it is also a religious talisman. What bothers you is that money is given to some things that you like and some things that you don't like. It's good that you feel a difference between utility and the ethical, but that presumably would always be there unless you equate the two. That's why it makes sense to say "more money should be spent on this" or "people should stop spending money on this" but not criticize the "influence of money" since money is an exchange medium not a power in-and-of-itself... it's lack of power in-and-of-itself is it's most defining characteristic. For example, candy doesn't make good money because if you get a craving you might eat it. The system is always firstly in people's minds / thoughts / ideas / whatever drives their behavior. That and software. Oh sure, the system is in everything but software is what's most efficiently changed.

Re: the "Omelas" bargain:

I don't get how the reference is relevant. Who's the kid in this scenario? I do think that pleasure is often bought at the expense of pain and that pleasure often sows the seeds of pain... Certainly a lot of the video games I've enjoyed have been hell to create. Overall, Omelas makes no sense; it doesn't attempt to explain in any realistic way how the kid's suffering can provide for so much joy, how people can sustain their economy / consumption / partying without painful labor, how people can avoid hedonic adaptation, or many other obstacles to trying to map this story onto the universe as some sort of useful metaphor.

Re: fund Google like a Kickstarter with a low "max donation" amount

I think Kickstarter's rely on big fish almost as much as "casual" games. I do not think that's a workable solution.

Re: "workers should own the means of production"

What could that possibly even mean today? Especially for this particular topic? Should "the people" own Google? If so, everyone would have their own search engine to the point there would be unsustainable redundancy, or it would be too small to be useful, or it would still be huge and centralized but "the people" would no more control its operations than the People's Republic of China. Or if Google employees should own it, that's not really too many people. With Apple spending $2 billion dollars to build a massive data center in Arizona that will employ a whoppping 150 people, it's clear that workers owning the means of production will soon mean that the few people who know how to run the world should own it, or its time for the computers to own themselves. Given that fewer and fewer people will be able to meaningfully "work", it seems that the former slaves are getting too useless for the elites and a retreat to the pity religions or the post-Marxisms that don't rely on now completely untenable labor theories of value or a radical luddism if one wants to hold onto these labor theories, believing that labor and "[f]reedom... is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion" (Freire).

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Bias is inevitable, what kind should we want, and why? Our answer to that will be decided by who best seduces us into an answer. See: Baudrillard


Who should pay for it then? Google's expenses are in the billions of dollars, and I certainly don't want the government to own "the world's most powerful system for freeing the mind" given that it would give them an even less adulterated look into my oh so free mind.


It has been co-opted from its original purpose to allow the more efficient organization and deployment of violent force. Discussion of possible alternatives is fine, but that discussion should be aware of the internet's history as an ARPA project.


This essay by Paul Graham seems relevant: http://paulgraham.com/good.html

He states that some things that are charities in intent may need to be businesses.


Would you be so kind as to cite the source of this quote? Nothing is coming up on Google or Bing.


I made it up as a way of rephrasing the parent comment from a different point of view.


> which have been biased by money. How does anyone consider this ethical?

Money itself is just a tool, it cant be (un)ethical. Best to focus on the human agents and incentives.

> should not be biased by monetary influence.

Influence will exist because it's part of human nature. Take away monetary incentives and you 'll have political influence, religious influence etc. We 've learned that from history.


Money is not just a tool. I think it would be possible to make the case that money as it interacts with our systems is inherently unethical in that it forces unethical behavior from agents trying to maximize their utility. And the legal system that we have built around it only amplifies this behavior.


Money buys speech.

I also used to fantasize about the democratization of speech via the internet. No longer would money determine what information reached you.

Adwords is no less ethical than search rankings, newspapers, TV, radio, literature, bus stops, music - reality, ultimately.

Good news: I agree that this is a problem. Bad news: It's incredibly more prevalent than you realize.

If communication of information isn't democratized, you can't have a democracy. It shouldn't be a surprise then that we don't have a democracy, but an oligarchy [1].

Mind you, this is just one of many factors that makes a true democracy impossible as they currently exist. [2]

1 http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_law_of_oligarchy


I wrote this a few weeks ago on HN but your argument is missing consideration for Google's "Page Quality Score" (PQS) algorithm - which is designed to provide at least some layer of quality / $$$-bias-arbitration.(1)

In short they believe that the most reliable way to drive search relevancy / quality EVEN in paid categories is to make sure the guy on the other end of the table is willing to pay for that user's attention.

QPS is designed to penalize the advertiser if they don't hit "relevancy" metrics which makes it more expensive for that advertiser to reach you - as a percentage it can make clicks literally 600% more expensive (worst case).

The relevancy metrics they'll use include page speed (good for user), time user spends on site (relevancy), actions taken - tracked by Google Analytics (relevancy), and content quality / uniqueness (relevancy).

If you've got a guy willing to pay with high relevancy it's a compelling reason to show nothing but ads.

Now is that REALLY good for the user across the board? No way.

But there's at least a superficial effort to arbitrage the $$$ bias.

(1) Google's PQS documentation https://storage.googleapis.com/support-kms-prod/8E4C3B33697E...

(2) http://searchengineland.com/minimum-quality-score-can-save-m...

(3) Google's PQS update broken down https://www.convirza.com/resources/the-impact-of-googles-rec...


I agree with you. Let's just give thanks that Larry Page doesn't run Wikipedia. At this point Google is way past the point of no return. They are more bothered about empire defense than information.


> and Google is the primary portal into that information system.

I don't see that you've got no choice but Google. The easy workaround is to switch to another search engine like DuckDuckGo.

Wikipedia is said to be exploring a search engine project so that may become another option: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/02/12/wikipedia_grant_buil...


Information produced costs money. Groups that do not have equal funding can have far less information produced about them. This becomes a significant issue in social science where only certain questions get funding and related but opposite questions do not, resulting in a one sided view of information (especially since many people think that absence of evidence is evidence of absence).


I'm not even sure why Google has sponsored search at this point. They have more than enough revenue from other sources to jettison this odious practice.


Mostly because the vast majority of adverts are showing against commercial/transactional search queries, not informational ones.


Without AdWords those advertising dollars would be spent on manipulating organic search results instead. That would be far worse.


Because limiting what order a person puts links on a website, or what their content is, gets pretty quickly into free speech issues?


I'm not saying Google shouldn't be allowed to do what it does. I'm just saying what it does seems fundamentally unethical.


"Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth's atmosphere to a company as a monopoly."

-Marshall McLuhan


maybe web search should be a public utility


hmm.. AdWords seems like the tiny tip of the iceberg. Perhaps you don't realise, but the problem you are alluding to is that money influences which information gets created. Those 'organic' search results are in the same boat as the ads.


Just imagine what TV/"news papers" used to be and still is. I can see why many left wing extremists worked on TV as it can be easily used to shape people with no alternative source of info. Until that pesky internet came and along and with it a lower barrier to entry. Things have improved, even with Google.


As a adjunct to this great read, you find out more about this field through the historical documentary, "The century of the Self" by Adam Curtis and the BBC. It is the 'red pill' for understanding consumerism. https://vimeo.com/10245146


Beat me to it.

Also recommended to read Bernays' works themselves, particularly "Crystallizing Public Opinion" and "Propaganda."

Its like reading an engineer's manual for social control.


Yeah, Bernays is great. He called it 'propeganda' to begin with - but realized that it needed a better name. So he called it 'public relations'. The best thing about PR is that people who practice PR have PR practiced on them - they don't even know the history of PR. Curtis' documentary is the best source I have come across for the history of PR. But this article is quite something. It helps explain the Trump effect - just get on the news/social-media and you will get more votes. Those who can manipulate the media, there's is the kingdom of power...


As someone with a degree in public relations, this simply not true. Edward Bernays is the first person covered in Introduction to Public Relations classes.

Do journalists, corporate communication professionals or others who end up in PR know him? That is up for debate.

EDIT: Clarity


Speaking of that trend, it is worth noting the British use of propaganda during WWI, particularly the Bryce Report and the Rape of Belgium. Much of modern propaganda owes to that watershed period. Bernays mentions it in Public Relations. Goebbels himself acknowledged it. [1]

[1] http://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/goeb27....


I remember the '90s, when the Internet as we know it was just a baby... The enthusiasm we all shared for it. Of a better future. Of true democracy in the world. Of free people, free minds. The Internet will be the cure for all the social ills that humanity has experienced in the past. People will trade and talk with each other and that's how we can have peace on Earth!

We will be able to discuss, collaborate, create. We would be able to watch any film, listen to any song.

Some people called us "geeks", we liked to call ourselves "hackers".

We are not just hacking code, we're hacking a new world.

--

A quarter of a century later and most of those things are now reality. But somehow these great things have brought with them some hidden things. Things which we ignored or brushed off easily back in the day..

Like the fact that the Internet is now populated by the same demographic as the real world, not just hackers and dreamers. Now everyone is online.

We thought it would free us from oppression, but it is becoming the ultimate tool for oppression.

We thought it would give us true democracy, but it is becoming the ultimate moderation system for "foreign" though suppression and group think generator.

We though it will serve our needs, but it is becoming the thing that is telling us what to need. We thought it will satisfy our tastes, but our tastes are now being programed into us by it.

Of course we're still high from all the positive aspects and it's not in our nature to be scared of things, but that will soon wear off .. And when we wake up what will we find there ?

Either way, it is unstoppable and nobody can turn it off. So we only have to wait and see what it will ultimately turn into.

What will it be 25 years from now ? Will we still be able to discuss about this freely ?


The big error of the 90s digital utopians was over-estimating how much the Internet would change society and under-estimating how much society would change the Internet.


The internet and society are intertwined in a fractal feedback loop, to the point where they are almost one in the same now.


There was a fair amount of resistance to society changing the internet from that crowd in the 90s. They've turned out to have been pretty much right, they just lost the fight.


I think the old internet still exists. Despite how terrible things have gotten in some aspects, you can still freely share ideas, data, and opinions. Yes, it makes me sad that we are forcing archaic meat-space ideas onto the internet, but, in many ways, the "core idea" of the internet moves around them.

I agree that in many ways the internet looks sad compared to what it was, but I don't think hope is lost.


Just because most people only consume content from a few corporate sites now, that doesn't mean the entire rest of the web has disappeared. The truth is, the web has only grown since its adoption by the mainstream. Yet out of some mixed sense of hipster despair and anti-capitalist contrarianism, it seems that "hackers" more than anyone have lost the ability to see the forest for the trees.

Of course the old internet still exists, at least as far as the old sites go - as long as someone is still paying to keep the servers up. What doesn't exist anymore is the exclusivity of online culture. But if the web is a platform for expression, and I don't think anyone can argue it isn't, then is it really the case that the old "culture" of the web, biased as it was towards hackers and university students merely by happenstance, was really more "true" than the culture of the web today?


Re: "I remember the '90s, when the Internet as we know it was just a baby... The enthusiasm we all shared for it. Of a better future. Of true democracy in the world. Of free people, free minds. The Internet will be the cure for all the social ills that humanity has experienced in the past. People will trade and talk with each other and that's how we can have peace on Earth!"

The inventor of television thought it would end war once people could see directly into other countries. I guess he thought it would make people more like himself. And you're right that the population of the internet has changed drastically. In the past 6 years, more Indian people have come online than the number of people in the United States. The mass migration into Europe has not been triggered because the Middle East is suddenly violent, but because now anyone, even without family abroad, can see how they can be paid far more in Europe for doing nothing than they can for doing anything accesible to them in their current location. They can read and share intricate details on how to make the trip, how unlikely it is to be deported, what benefits they can get where and by taking what steps, how to and why to destroy their passports and acquire Syrian passports, etc. Sure television let them see 90210 and all sorts of Western things, and that was influential, but the Western channels that could be retrieved by satelites never ran infomercials on one weird trick to raise your income by twenty times. And all of the extra information accessed through the internet has made living in the "worst" countries ever more embarassing and painful because the relative and absolute differences are harder to ignore. And this obviously effects the experience of lifestyle differences in the richest countries, too.

"Homer was wrong when he said 'Would that Conflict might vanish from among Gods and men!'... One must realize that war is shared and Conflict is Justice, and that all things come to pass in accordance with conflict." - Kahn translating Heraclitus

If we want something to be different, we'll have to fight to change it, and we can be sure someone will want to change something further still.

Re: "What do we call the state of the world that leaves us with only 2 pre-selected choices who happen to agree on 90%+ of all policies?"

Well, and supposedly over 90% of my DNA is shared with chimpanzees. If anything, there is plenty of competition in both primaries this year even if superdelegates mean that Bernie's chances are fake. Bernie was down over 30% in the polls and won Michigan so I'm not sure how pre-selected these choices are. I know there is rampant voter fraud in the United States, but new ID requirements instituted to give a possibility of detecting it seem to be deterring fraud quite well this cycle. Democratic party turnout is a whopping 285 percent (!!!) worse in states with new voter ID laws. Even as turnout overall is much higher! Voter fraud investigations ending in convictions have shown that it has been trivial for less than ten people to successfully conspire to get hundreds of thousands of ballots counted as valid, so I'd say choices are becoming less pre-selected. The only person who pre-selected Trump was Trump.

Re: "None of this is any kind of pre-planned conspiracy, just brain chemisty"

But it is a pre-planned conspiracy. These are exactly the Alinsky-ite tactics Hillary studied for her senior thesis. Yes, the average foot soldier doesn't know the origins of why they treat people with different politics the way that they do, but they are modeling behavior that was originally meticulously designed. The Twitter Trust and Safety council's biased banning is driven by Habermas's arguments for a need for censorship in favor of the good. Philosophers / theorists / prophets / thinkers drive behavior. Even if Google is diverting people to pages, someone has to come up with the ideas on those pages, even the idea that people should buy a graphic t-shirt. The ideas are then presented using techniques of rhetoric / advertising / proganda / presuasion / captology / seuduction to propel themselves through brains and their chemistry but reduction to chemisty here is unfair to the lucidity of the most far-seeing, far-planning, and far-influencing of our species.

Re: "replace voting with polling!"

And have laws fly back and forth with vacillating of polls? You haven't even acknowledged any of the historical problems of direct democracy or any of these reasons such polling was opposed by both Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Even if this polling was legitimate (its scientifically debatable whether it could be and, I feel, psychologically / sociologically impossible) its contravention to the Constitution and the sense of illegitimacy it will be saturated with to those who lose on important issues would guarantee that 10%+ of U.S. citizens would begin an armed revolution. 45% of Americans believe in ghosts and enough Americans disbelieve polls (I don't know how to Google for a poll about polls!) even when they more indirectly influence policy that I believe your policy would be a grave danger to the general peace. Hillary was favored in EVERY Michigan poll, most by 20-30 points! And she lost! Polling is less accurate than ever and it would be far more difficult to actually vet a poll where you had to make sure that the pollee was legitimate. I've been polled twice in my life and never selected for jury duty. I've heard lots of older people complain that they've never been polled. Do you understand that if people went years without being polled by your system that the mind trick by which democracy gives people the illusion of control would suddenly fail? You underestimate the ritual function of elections.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Bias is inevitable, what kind should we want, and why? Our answer to that will be decided by who best seduces us into an answer. See: Baudrillard


TLDR, but I'd like a citation for those voter fraud investigations. The usual explanation for reduced voter turnout when voter ID laws are applied is the difficulty of obtaining ID (D districts may be further from the relevant offices than R districtsm, and for some reason it costs money and you can't do it by post).

I'm also confused as to what -285% could possibly mean - voters stopped turning out so hard that they ended up voting for the other party twice over?


Here is the actual study: http://www.pnas.org/content/112/33/E4512.full.pdf

I can't see how this is valid at all. We know that polls give biased results unless you are very careful with the sampling. Here people are self-selecting for a poll (eg via mechanical turk). Then you apply a highly contrived scenario that they are googling about a candidate. Then you ask them a bunch of questions, immediately, and proceed to draw wide ranging conclusions designed to increase your self-importance as much as possible. I mean, seriously, it's worse than useless.

This article is also written as if these findings are earth shattering. After conducting a small, biased, invalid study (Asking people in San Diego about an Australian election? How does that generalize to anything?) and finding a large effect Epstein says 'We did not immediately uncork the Champagne bottle'. Is that how psychology research is conducted? Researchers toasting large implausible effects in small biased samples that have no external validity?

Flagged.


I had to stop reading the article when it invited the reader to compare two loosely-related percentages as if they were the same measure:-

"We predicted that the opinions and voting preferences of 2 or 3 per cent of the people in the two bias groups ... would shift toward that candidate. What we actually found was astonishing. The proportion of people favouring the search engine’s top-ranked candidate increased by 48.4 per cent"


This read like anti-Google FUD.

The basic argument is search engine rank determines trustworthiness of a source. This influences people's opinions on politics, what they buy, what they think, etc.

This is absolutely true, and the core of their research (it seems).

But then it goes into FUD territory when talking about Google backing Hillary. Hillary and Trump have received the lion's share of attention in media, social media, and such. Google searches SHOULD show them prominently.

Worse, the article basically finishes up with a "be afraid, be very afraid" approach that rankles me. "The new hidden persuaders are bigger, bolder and badder than anything Vance Packard ever envisioned. If we choose to ignore this, we do so at our peril."

No solutions or deeper analysis. No discussions on how a search engine should rank relevancy to search terms.

I personally have no doubt that mass-media, marketing, and the internet are shapers of opinions. Bias in the media, search engines, and such is a complex topic. Not something that should boil down to "Google could make it so Hillary wins" therefore you should be afraid.


(Disclaimer: I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Massachusetts primary).

I agree; the Hillary portion of it seemed like a bit of a silly conspiracy theory to me. They'd still need to provide evidence rather than innuendo, but it'd be more believable (albeit attract fewer HN upvotes) if the article had claimed Google has a pro-Bernie bias, since he's the candidate who likely has the most support amongst Google employees and especially engineers.

I don't think the (potential) issue is so much Google actively putting its thumb on the scale for one candidate, as the influence outside activists can have on how they create their algorithm.

Suppose that the (Hillary-endorsing) New York Times runs a front-page story saying that a study found Google search results systematically are more negative towards female candidates than they are to male candidates. The subtext of such a story would be that the NYT is pressuring Google to alter its algorithm to be more favorable to Hillary. I think there'd be a pretty decent chance Google would in fact alter its algorithm in response to such a story. I doubt they would alter their algorithm in response to a similar criticism from a conservative source.

Similarly, if one of the top results for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders were a scatological reference, as with Rick Santorum, I think that Google would very quickly remove that page from its results.

Now, there's nothing wrong with getting rid of bias in search results directed at left-of-center politicians. But if Google (hypothetically, of course) is much more aggressive with eliminating bias towards left-of-center politicians than it is with eliminating bias towards right-of-center politicians, the net effect will be a general left-of-center bias in Google search results.

None of this is any kind of pre-planned conspiracy, just brain chemistry. We're wired to easily perceive bias, incivility and lying when directed at those we agree with, but justify, rationalize or ignore it when directed at those we disagree with.


It's worth pointing out that the positions of a company's executives and financial staff aren't necessarily the position of a company's line employees or engineers. Sanders is much less supportive of big business in government. And Google has put a LOT of money into government.


I think if Google execs had been directing Google engineers to make search results less favorable to Bernie and/or more favorable to Hillary, we would have heard about it.

The relevant engineers themselves would have more opportunity to change the search algorithm without generating public complaints from their coworkers. I really doubt they would, though, so conspiracy theorizing about it is still silly.

Like I said, I think the potential for political bias doesn't come from Google executive conspiracies or Google engineer conspiracies to alter the search algorithm, but rather from how the execs and/or engineers might react differently to outside demands that they change the algorithm, depending on the degree to which they sympathize with the source of the demands.


I'm just saying, the fact that Google would push politically something different than their lower level employees support wouldn't be surprising. Also, bear in mind that search ranking code is among Google's most carefully-guarded code. In fact, it's some of the only code not available company-wide.

The people who have access to Google's 'secret sauce' are likely the sort of die-hard "I bleed Google" people who would do anything in Google's best interests.

Of course, for that same reason, it's much less likely search tampering would happen... the group that could do it is very small and likely very closely monitored.



The article provides both scientifically acquired evidence and some analysis. That's more than your comment provides, IMO.


It provides evidence that search engine rankings influence opinion, which I do not doubt. From a business perspective SEO exists for this very reason.

It also provides evidence that Google as a company likely supports Hillary to at least some degree. Of this I also have no doubt.

But it uses FUD to say you should connect the dots and state that Google is actively manipulating rankings to assist a particular candidate. Of this, they provide no evidence other than "they could".

It's that last bit I take issue with. There's no analysis to support this notion.

If they did such an analysis I'd be very impressed as it would very much help discuss the deeper issues of Google's power over opinion. Essentially, Google is the portal to information for most people. They are a private company operating for profit that uses an algorithm that must be secret for it to work. I understand the unease with that situation and enjoy reading discussions about it.

However, their choice to essentially accuse Google of altering their algorithm to support Hillary is unsupported at this time. By adding it in it hurts their broader argument that gatekeepers of information should be subject to increased scrutiny and potentially to new regulations to ensure their neutrality.


Totally agree with you.

I'm also really surprised that the political leanings of corporate leaders is of such importance these days.

It's like holding every single employee of Enron culpable for the actions of Ken Lay et al.


"Hillary and Trump have received the lion's share of attention in media, social media, and such. Google searches SHOULD show them prominently."

I'm not sure I agree with this.

An alternative is easy to conceive, that all candidates that meet some external criteria (such as being on a ballot) are randomized to be favored equally in results.

I'm not convinced that it's inherently better to favor candidates with a lot of media coverage over just equally favoring them all. Sure, that's how it works now, but that doesn't mean it should be that way. There is a choice to make.


Google tries to show what the web and web users think is relevant to a search term. Not what is true, neutral, peer-reviewed, curated, balanced, etc.

It'd be interesting to see if Google could come up with a way to use machine learning to do fact finding and remove the web's biases. I strongly suspect such an effort would be seen as more dangerous than just reporting on the web.


"We now have evidence suggesting that on virtually all issues where people are initially undecided, search rankings are impacting almost every decision that people make."

I dug into his CV and found the following related works:

- recent publications: http://aibrt.org/index.php/internet-studies

- The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of elections [http://aibrt.org/downloads/EPSTEIN_&_ROBERTSON_2015-The_Sear...]

A talk that he gave at Stanford about SEME: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSN6LE06J54&feature=youtu.be

- Democracy At Risk Manipulating Search Rankings Can Shift Voters’ Preferences Substantially Without Their Awareness:[http://aibrt.org/downloads/EPSTEIN_and_Robertson_2013-Democr...]

CV: http://drrobertepstein.com/pdf/vita.pdf?lbisphpreq=1


Google could send people to places that are contrary to the user's interest, but that's essentially deliberately decreasing the quality of one of their products so I'm not that worried about it. If they do it's a (big) market opportunity for someone else.

I would go even farther: I'm not particularly worried about individual interests at all, on any subject. The Internet is very good at exposing them.

I am much more concerned with bad classes of actors than bad actors. We see many ways in which competition breaks down because entire classes of people benefit from working in synchrony. The classic example is politicians: crooked elections mean longer terms which benefits basically all of them.

The other classic example is the capital class. If everyone in the capital class plays by he rules of property then they can exploit the labor class. Once you're in the capital class there are few reasons to compete with private property. Social pressure mostly neuters whatever capital class activists might try to keep working.

It's these class barriers that we should be worried about. But new weapons (like search engines) and new villains (like Islam) make much better news stories.


It's not trivial to ascertain what a users "interests" are. And I think that's the debate here. Google optimization algorithms are an embodiment of a value system, and maybe I don't agree with it.

McDonalds also gives people what they want, but only in a very narrow sense of 'want'.


It doesn't really matter if it's trivial. It's in Google's interest to do it so it tends to happen.

McDonalds isn't really uniquely bad. Burger King, Jack in the Box, et al are basically the same. They are a perfect example of what I described: a class of actors to whom there is benefit to acting in concert against the best interests of consumers.


Most people find this a joke, but I don't kid when I say that 4Chan might be the single most influential political force today.

4Chan's 'meme makers' have an uncanny ability to distill an idea to its simplest form. Ideas that emerge on 4Chan end up on Reddit, from where they are picked up by Buzzfeed and HuffPo. Before you know it, what was a dumb little idea spawned by some anon on /b has become a part of 'internet culture'

I've seen firsthand how 4Chan has been able to influence Trump's presidential run. If it weren't for /pol's constant shilling for him, I doubt Trump would've had so much support. 4Chan's memes have changed perceptions of Trump, whether you like it or not


>Most people find this a joke, but I don't kid when I say that 4Chan might be the single most influential political force today.

I do hope you are kidding, because to say that a fringe Internet forum holds more sway on the masses than TV, newspapers, Super PACs, corporate lobbies, etc, then I think you are seeing things very very wrong.

>I've seen firsthand how 4Chan has been able to influence Trump's presidential run. If it weren't for /pol's constant shilling for him, I doubt Trump would've had so much support. 4Chan's memes have changed perceptions of Trump, whether you like it or not

Trump is winning states left right and center. Millions of Americans are voting for him. After everything that can be said about Trump, I wonder what makes you think this is attributed to, of all things, 4chan? Isn't this a little too megalomaniac?


Digg it!


Reddit is very anti-trump, and liberal. Most reputable media companies in the western world are liberal. Do you have an example of a website like huffpo or buzzfeed quoting reddit about how awesome that beautiful pepe gif of trumps train with no brakes is?

Any trump content is heavily downvoted on reddit. Just click on controversial posts on reddit, filter for today or the whole week, one subreddit will be most prominent.


Reddit has a surprisingly strong/large pro-trump subreddit: /r/TheDonald, which seems to pop up on the front page with alarming regularity.


Hold on, so we call it "Mind Control" when Google shifts our preferences toward one of two pre-selected choices? What do we call the state of the world that leaves us with only 2 pre-selected choices who happen to agree on 90%+ of all policies?


You call it "a freshly plowed field ripe for planting Donald J Trump"

If you are inclined to speak in metaphors, that is.


Inevitable. Do you really think the power brokers let you have a real choice?


Not power brokers. It's an emergent phenomenon predicted by public choice theory.

http://magarshak.com/blog/?p=212


Also, this CGP Grey video explains how a first-past-the-post voting system all-but-guarantees a two party system to emerge over time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7tWHJfhiyo


Would you like to replace it with proportional representation? You thought a few day government shutdown was bad? Try 500 days.


Then how do you explain the missing government shutdowns in all the countries with proportional representation? Even in Belgium, where they had a long time without a new government after an election, government services were provided just fine.


You think it is two party representation to blame for the state of the U.S. legislature?

It's just as easy to blame the fact the smallest minority party in either chamber still has near-majority numbers. They're not incentivized to compromise the way a party that knows they'll never get more than 10% of seats would.

And government shutdowns as a result of legislative gridlock across the world aren't even correlated with a more-than-two party legislature.


Dude, your tinfoil is slipping.


Google doesn't need to use search results to manipulate voting behavior -- they have Google Now.

Google Now currently displays cards to remind people to vote on voting day. Maybe it just happens to be more likely to show up for people that have been profiled as likely to vote for Google's favored candidate.


They may not even have to target their message. If a platform's users already have a bias (and this seems to be the case[0]), then they can display the "go vote" message globally and have the desired affect. All while waving the public good PR flag.

This assumes the platform's wishes aligns with their users, but this may be self-fulfilling.

[0] http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/politics-fact-sheet/


I got a card notification the other day about Hillary winning in some state and I thought to myself, why the hell am I seeing this?


The internet, in fact, provides the best support ever for closing your mind to anything that doesn't align with your world view. You just have to google for pages that confirm your beliefs, finding sites and forums filled with people who think like you do. Then you can deceive yourself into believing that your views actually have a large support. ("Pretty much everyone I know online on every site I go believes it!")

The upshot is that "subtle influence" is not going to work on those who are crudely entrenching themselves into some camp or other. For instance, you're not going to "subtly influence" some denier into accepting human-caused global warming. Not as long as he can find plenty of others and keep believing that his social circle is an unbiased sample of the population.


Something like this recently disturbed me. Mitt Romney published a tweet storm a few days ago making his case against Donald Trump. They all showed up in my feed - I don't follow Romney, and the tweets weren't marked as sponsored, but somehow Twitter decided I should be seeing them anyway.

I'd hate to think Twitter decided it was for the public good that everyone read what Romney had to say about Trump.


How do you think the media mughals made their billions. They made them doing exactly this.


So you think some one paying twitter to get those tweets to show up? And not through the "sponsored" system?


Dunno. Hard to say. Could be, or could be their algo saying you would like it. They will always claim the latter.


It's a recommendation engine, it's not Twitter decided everyone should read it. Obviously you read, follow, consume content related to this so the algorithm decided you'd probably like Romney's tweets too (because they were super popular)


Why doesn't this recommendation engine ever show me anyone else's tweets? Why only Romney, and why now?


Unfortunately that train has already left the station, and to thunderous applause from the media. Twitter already carefully curates hashtags; it's not hard to imagine they'd take the liberty of promoting a series of tweets that they feel are important.


This simply is not true.

Oh, wait, you're spreading your subtle forms of influence.


Oh god. This article is so fucking disappointing.

What a quaint boogey man this "Search Engine Manipulation Effect" is. It even has it's own obscure little acronym, SEME, to appear more relevant.

I learned about the subtle effects of advertising by the time I was in fourth grade, and certainly understood how to ignore them by middle school.

Back when special holographic foil comic book covers and trading cards were new, I had already figured out that all of these "collectibles" were mass-produced, and would never wind up as valuable as, say Action Comics Issue#1, despite so many claims otherwise. This was something you could kind of figure out on your own. If your were easily amused by shiny objects though, you might not arrive at the same conclusion.

Meanwhile anyone could figure out that the influence of single frame inserts in movies was as potent and realistic as the subliminal messaging in John Carpenter's Sci-fi movie, THEY LIVE.

So too, with Search Engines.

Figure if a fourth grader can figure out the shenanigans of opinion and belief influence in advertising, and unravel the bullshit of religion before high school ends, then this other newer form of bullshit is similarly debunked by comparable intellects. If you're so stupid that you buy into bullshit, without multiple channels of factual verification, you're your own worst enemy.

Okay, okay, maybe this is good reading material for an elementary school classroom assignment, focused on current events. Sure, why not?

I was hoping this would be about technological manifestations of psychic telepathy through malicious use of functional MRI systems.

Bah!


It seems you are saying that there is nothing to worry about, because you specifically have learned to magically rebuff any attempts at mental manipulation.

Did I read that correctly? Assuming you have this ability, how does this tell us anything about society at large?


It's looking like our only hope left is the recently declassified WMF search engine. I get that people didn't like Lila doing all of that grant in secret, but I find myself not really opposed to to Wikimedia taking on Google. In the long term, someone is going to have to do it.


This is a really interesting study but it's hard for me to believe in the conspiracy theory that the hundreds of engineers that work on Google Search would be OK implementing a complicated vote manipulation algorithm and keeping it secret. But it's possible, criminal conspiracies involving many people seem to happen regularly in the financial industry.


I was actually surprised the article didn't mention the Ghost in the Shell series. A big part of that universe was the idea that even without concerted manipulation, the simple fact that the information consumed by the public is too homogeneous could cause problems.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_Ghost_in_the_She...


Absolutely.

I think in any system, there will be emergent behavior exhibited by agents. We see this in toy examples like Conway's game of life, but it could easily be applied to societies and pop culture too.

Hence we have this concept of "memes".


Engineers work on top-secret weapons all the time though...


I'm not sure it would happen in such an obvious way. It would probably happen in a way that "makes sense" for most of those people, and not from a "let's manipulate the votes" perspective.

I'll give an example. The establishment corporate media is already biased. That much has been clear this election (although it's been happening for many years or even decades).

The Internet is "pretty free" right now, and people can Google, or go on Twitter and see "news" that doesn't necessarily come from that establishment media. However, that is already starting to change.

Google, Facebook, and Twitter can all change that by giving "brand name" media much better ranking results through their algorithms. In some cases, such as with the recent "AMP" project, these companies won't even have to rely on good search ranking. They just benefit from having partnerships with Google and being shown at the top of the page automatically. What this means is that the corporate media's brainwashing continues almost unfettered going into the future.

The upside is that people can still look for other sources and views on the Internet, while they can't really do that on TV. So in that way the Internet is still better (as long as it doesn't start implementing "ISIS & others filters" with a new US president. But the portals through which most people get their information are getting tighter and tighter relationships with establishment corporate media, and voter education will suffer for that.

Ideally, what I'd like Google to do, unless it actually wants that kind of "bias" on its search pages (whether it comes from the results or otherwise), is for them to use their increasingly more advanced AI to figure out which elections stories are "biased" and fact-free, and which are the closest to the facts and use the least biased language in them.

"Journalism" is supposed to be about the facts, and Google search should be promote that kind of stories over the biased hit-jobs. And Google should also verify those facts itself with its AI, so it shouldn't just promote stories with false "facts".

It's not going to be easy to do something like that well enough, but I think Google could do it, and I think AI has reached a point where that may be within its grasp within a few years.


It's the old problem that is also evident in public (as in state-owned) tv broadcasting. Should the news programs and journalists take sides and endorse the viewpoint that they believe best reflects facts? Or should they just report the various viewpoints that are present in society regardless of their value?

In the first case, you run the risk of having a journalist using a public resource to advance his own point of view. In the second case you just end up being an echo chamber for what the politicians (who each represent a share of public opinion) want to say. Moreover, if you adopt the second approach, how much space do you give to each opinion, to avoid over or under-representing some? Proportional to the share of votes of the politician expressing it?

I'm not saying there is a solution. But the idea that the value of opinions can be established objectively- or even determined by an algorithm- is a bit naive.


I find it hard to believe that thousands of engineers work in secret to build weapons that can maim and kill hundreds/thousands/millions of people at the flip of switch.


VW?


This article is speaking about something that has existed as long as mass media has. Whether it's google or newspapers or TV, the companies running the sources we turn to have control over what information we are exposed to, and can influence our views. Our grandfathers read the newspaper, our parents watched TV. What, google is a monopoly? Ok, so that's the big issue.

On the other hand, our susceptibility to having our political system be disproportionately affected by a company or two with a top-down chain of command is a reflection that our system of representative democracy has weak links and can be easily subverted.

I wrote about the solution to this a while back: replace voting with polling! Have people cast their voice for POLICIES not REPRESENTATIVES. It is much more costly to fool all the people all the time, than to fool them at election time, and then go on to lobby the representatives they chose.

Voting depends on turnout, which skews the results and is susceptible to sybil attacks (remember facebook's vote about the newsfeed that got 3% turnout?)

Polling doesn't. It can be refined using better and better statisical techniques. We can gradually replace costly and stupid elections where candidates talk about their penis, with polling of the population on issues like gun control etc. Replace the bickering lawmakers and filibusters with polling and threshholds.

http://magarshak.com/blog/?p=212


>I wrote about the solution to this a while back: replace voting with polling!

That is an implementation detail which might lead to a more fair system. Nevertheless it is not a solution to the real problem, which is creating the incentive to move away from the current status quo.

(side: you may be interested in the link in my profile)


So on this note, I just want to point out that everytime the horrors of the new technologies is talked about, something else isn't talked about.

I've seen a number of newer HN account flooding the site with articles... presumably for eyeballs + ad revenue but hey, maybe they just want another link to lose attention..


The internet is just a new medium to persuade opinions just as the many before it. Most people don't even know who represents them apart from what's talked about in the news. This study required people to actually browse through this fake search engine. I'm not convinced many people do any research whatsoever (beyond the top of the ballot).

Does this "search engine manipulation effect" have an impact on top of the ballot votes? We still don't know. Does it have an impact on everyone else on your ballot? Nope.

Disclosure... I am the founder of a company that builds a tool for organizations to blatantly tell people who to vote for...


As much as I would love to imagine some powerful people intentionally influencing search results on a big scale, Google and Facebook and Twitter have no real way to make money from it. I would argue that it would only drive people away. I am sure that it happens to a certain degree, look at the marketing of Bernie Sanders on reddit, but a much bigger influence is your social circle and your source of new information. Social media mirrors people's attitude. If you see new tweets about an issue you don't particularly care for, there's a good chance that people you follow do care. It's basic psychology that you befriend people who share your views and interests. If all of your friends tweet or like or show interest in something then twitter will assume you do too. Twitter makes money from user engagement and so it's logical to show you things that your friends agree with because chances are you will too. I think a real issue is the lack of a source of unbiased information. Relevant information and information you agree with are very different things.


What I find tragically interesting is that the maintainers of this website (aeon.co) and likely most of the people reading this comment are contributing to the massive dominance the mentioned companies have over the flow of personal information about people online. If I didn't block trackers, it looks like Facebook and Google would both know I read this article, along with Twitter and New Relic.


>Keep in mind that we had had only one shot at our participants. What would be the impact of favouring one candidate in searches people are conducting over a period of weeks or months before an election? It would almost certainly be much larger than what we were seeing in our experiments.

Reminds me of http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/24/streetlight-psychology/

>And in 2015, a team of researchers from the University of Maryland and elsewhere showed that Google’s search results routinely favoured Democratic candidates. Are Google’s search rankings really biased?

A greater portion of liberals use social media than conservatives (source: http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/03/12/main-findings-10/) Maybe they organically generate more links?


>Power on this scale and with this level of invisibility is unprecedented in human history.

I would argue that the influence of media has always been this powerful. And media has always been biased.

Another angle to look at would be to apply the work of Stanley Milgram re: obedience to authority figures. Our ability to think for ourselves has some evolving to do...


This topic is also addressed in the last season of House of Cards.


I once read an article about surveillance with a title along the lines of "A Tale of Two Cities."

In it, the author explains that there are two types of surveillance cities that will emerge in the future: one where every park bench is rigged with a mic, every street corner has a camera aimed at it, and where all the data collected is funneled to law enforcement agencies; if you were mugged on some street corner, they'd be able to react to the crime swiftly and with high accuracy.

The other city is exactly the same, but all the data is made available to all citizens through an open API; so if you wanted to meet with someone on some street corner, you could decide for yourself if it was safe enough to visit, likely preventing the crime from happening at all.

Does anyone know what article I'm talking about?



This is it, thank you!!


I'm really astonished to find only a handful of references to DuckDuckGo in this discussion. I've been using it exclusively for about 2 years now, and had no problems at all. Perhaps I just don't know what I'm missing ... like mind control!


People using Google most likely "had no problems at all" either.


Megacorporations are bad for the internet for certain, but I don't feel very mind controlled by Google, as I almost always use Duckduckgo or Yandex. They produce fairly similar results, and I have the satisfaction of not shoveling the tiniest bit of money at a company I have likened to fat Vegas era Elvis.

I also doubt the results of their research. Nobody is going to vote for Donald Trump because he happens to appear first in a google search; that's just retarded. I think the fact that outsider candidates are locked out of legacy media megaphones and party power structures seems more harmful to democracy, and this has been accepted as "just how it is" for decades.


I designed supraliminal posters[1] to counter the covert forms of persuasion like Low Attention Processing marketing[2]. I definitely find them helpful, especially for meditation.

[1] http://zenpusher.com

[2] http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/low-atten...


Do you think [2] is a bad thing, and why?



Mind control in the same way encyclopedias used to favor subjects that start with the letter A?

I swear, sometimes I think the world is inhabited by p-zombies, who don't actually think things through, but just mindlessly recombine previously consumed memes into (slightly) novel variants.

Was this written by a second grader?


Related: https://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/personalized-search-... "Personalized Search for everyone " (2009)




tldr:

Use DuckDuckGo.




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