Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil.” It’s well-debased by now: agreeing to help China censor the internet modeled a non-existent distinction between “don’t be evil” and “don’t assist evil.” I’m not ready to call Google’s looming truth algorithm “evil,” but it is certainly sinister and dangerous.
Google’s search engine rose to dominate the field by using the number of incoming links to a web page to determine where it appears in search results. Pages that many other sites link to are ranked higher. “The downside is that websites full of misinformation can rise up the rankings, if enough people link to them,” says Newscientist.
Now a Google research team is altering the system to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its web popularity. Instead of counting incoming links, the proposed new system would count the number of “incorrect” facts within a page. “A source that has few false facts is considered to be trustworthy,” says the team. Each page will get its computer-determined Knowledge-Based Trust score, which the software will derive by tapping into Google’s Knowledge Vault, a repository of what Google’s claims is Absolute Truth based on web consensus. Web pages that contain contradictory information will be bumped down the rankings, so fewer minds will be warped by non-conforming information.
Naturally, the Left, assuming that its view of the universe is the unassailably correct and virtuous one, loves this idea. That should put that”climate change denialists” in their places–at the bottom of web searches. Says Salon, which never met a conservative argument that wasn’t a lie (NEVER met? Oh, oh. There goes Ethics Alarms down the search results!), “Even though the former program is just in the research stage, some anti-science advocates are upset about the potential development, likely because their websites will become buried under content that is, well, true.”
Get that? The bad guys don’t like this plan—which means it must be good!—because it will prevent them from lying, which is defined as disagreeing with any tenets of progressiveness and political correctness, programmed right into the software as “fact.” How do I know this will happen? That’s not the proper question. The proper question is what’s going to stop it? Can you see Google reducing the rank of websites that are consistently deceitful and misleading, like those claiming the women make only 77% as much as men because of gender bias, or that one in four women who go to college are raped, or that Mike Brown had his hands up, or that the Democratic Party, “for more than 200 years…has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights”? I can’t.
Will websites that assert religious beliefs be judged “untrue”? How about sites that assert that Islam is a violent and revolutionary religion? Determining which sites get the most traffic and links can be determined objectively; deciding what is true and factual requires complex and debatable distinctions between opinion and fact, metaphor, hyperbole, ideology, skepticism, and deceit (Did Bill have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky?). Will just facts be at issue, or deceitful arguments made specifically to make readers believe what isn’t true? We just were informed that “cholesterol is not as bad for you as we once thought,” after years of being told that consuming eggs, milk and steak would kill as for sure. There were nutritional and economic consequeneces of that “fact.” Would Google’s new search methods have buried the assertions of contrarian scientists, who were claiming this years ago, as liars? [NOTE of CORRECTION: In the original post, this latest finding was phrased as “reducing dietary cholesterol has no health benefits.” That was careless and inaccurate: I apologize to readers. The post isn’t about cholesterol, but I should have been more careful.]
Do you want to bet U.S. democracy on it?
Far from making American better informed, Google, knowingly or not, will be attempting to duplicate the pre-internet, pre-cable, monopoly on information distribution the networks once enjoyed, creating a more homogenous public opinion because CBS, NBC and ABC were trusted as the objective guardians, gate-keepers and beneficent authorities on what was factual and what was not. Now we know, as we should have known then, that our trust was misplaced, and that the system was polluted by bias, and as all such systems will forever be.
Google’s brave new algorithm is no different: the machine will be objective, but those programming it will not be. The result will be prior restraint of information. There will be an official arbiter of “fact”: Google.
I don’t trust the government to decide unilaterally what is The Truth, and I don’t trust a big corporation, especially one that was willing to collaborate with the Chinese government, to do that either. This is not a case like the theoretical head transplants discussed here earlier, where an advance in science might be used in unethical ways, but is itself ethically neutral. The objective of Google’s threatened “truth algorithm” is itself unethical, as well as riddled with arrogance and hubris. It is an abuse of Google’s power to control information for it to presume what is truth. No machine or program is that omniscient, and certainly those who program it are not.