In today’s podcast, Eric Eggers mentions “The Creepy Line” (2018), a documentary film still available through Amazon Prime that exposed how deeply Google and Facebook can control what you read, see, and even respond to their search and news feed algorithms. Through interviews and investigative work, the film explains truths about Big Tech’s influence. Director M.A. Taylor and investigative journalist Peter Schweizer of the Government Accountability Institute give you the truth in watchable detail. You can also see the film on YouTube.
The Creepy Line also features Dr. Jordan Peterson and Dr. Robert Epstein, both highly influential behavioral psychologists interested in the psychology of social media.
The film first appeared as tech companies were having to defend their companies from charges of bias and censorship by political conservatives, and invasions of privacy by cyber-security advocates. A video of Google executives sobbing in their first “all-hands” meeting days after the 2016 election fed public suspicion that these companies are run by a very small, insulated, left-leaning elite of billionaires with a God Complex.
The reference in the title itself is a famous, unsettling clip by Eric Schmidt, then Google’s CEO, answering a question at a forum about Google’s respect for its users’ privacy. He smiled and said, “the Google policy about a lot of these things is to get right up to the creepy line, but not cross it.”
The movie shows how often they do cross that line with their filtering and ranking of search results. Jordan Peterson states the film’s basic premise: “What’s good and bad, according to whose judgment?”
“Fake news,” for example, has always existed, but in the past was easier to spot and dismiss. Dr. Epstein points out in the film that you don’t change people’s minds such stories because of their own “confirmation bias.” A real problem happens, though, is when such stories are never even seen and considered in the first place because someone at Facebook or Google has suppressed their “reach” or, in Google’s case, down-ranked them off the first page of results. Both Epstein and Peterson tell how they were locked out of their personal Gmail accounts by Google at one point after they raised these concerns. In Peterson’s case, he was even locked out of his highly popular YouTube channel as well.
The film quotes a former Facebook employee who confessed to censoring the social network’s “Trending Topics” feed. He and his colleagues at Facebook deliberately removed conservative-leaning news stories and replaced them with things those employees thought people should see instead. You’ll learn about a controversial experiment that Facebook performed on some of its users a few years ago, when they tested how showing a small sample of their users a news feed filled with negative, depressing news stories might affect their mood… and how much time they spent on Facebook.
Jaron Lanier, a tech pioneer in virtual reality and noted critic of Facebook and Google’s enormous control over the internet, reminds us that “we’re not citizens of Facebook,” so we have no say over any of this manipulation by either company. The film builds from these examples and perspectives to its climactic insights – Dr. Epstein’s deep research into Search Engine Manipulation Effect.
Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychologist and researcher, found that Google could, and did, deliberately manipulate the result sets shown for searches on political candidates before the 2016 election, in Hillary Clinton’s favor. He also did his own experiments to see whether he could create shifts in opinion about political candidates by deliberately giving his subjects biased results. The explanation of his work is lengthy, but compelling in showing that this is not only possible, but that it really happened.