In a recent post, Google, Groupthink & the Media, Donna Laframboise writes: “Google is the kind of multinational tech giant that may be too big and too powerful for society’s good. It wields enormous influence, yet is subject to few checks and balances.” She continues by sharing the claims presented in various U.S. news media that Google “can covertly influence elections, undermining democracy itself,” and suggests that “sustained scrutiny of Google may be even more important than scrutiny of a particular government or a particular political leader.”
Laframboise criticizes Google for encouraging conformity also by throwing its annual “Google Camp” extravaganzas to which it invites celebrities and pushes particular views, such as climate change alarmism in this year’s Camp. Because the celebrities tweet these views to their vast pools of followers, conformity of opinion grows exponentially. And conformity of views, Laframboise argues, is a bad thing.
I agree with Donna Laframboise that conformity of opinions is bad. Changing your views to match those of people around you, to “get along” or to “fit in,” is second-handed behavior, which involves giving up independent thinking to blindly follow others.
But Google is not to blame for such irrational behavior. Nor does Google need “checks and balances,” because it cannot be “too big and too powerful.”
In her criticism of Google, Laframboise fails to distinguish between the type of power held by government and the power of corporations. Government holds political power, which is the power to coerce. Government can make people do something, under the threat of force. It can make us pay taxes by threatening with fines or even jail. It can silence critics by imprisoning them, sending them to labor camps, or having them assassinated.
Corporations (unless they exist in a crony system where government wields its coercive power in favor of some companies over others) do not hold political power and cannot coerce anyone. They have only the power to persuade—and people can choose to be persuaded or not, according to their own, independent judgment. They can choose to believe corporations’ messaging, buy their products, work for them, invest in their stock, or do business with them. Or they can choose not to do any of those things.
Yes, we as individuals—not the government—should critically scrutinize corporations’ advertising messages, their products and services, and whether they conduct themselves ethically and not. This is in our self-interest because we want to benefit from trading with corporations.
As Ayn Rand has argued, the government should stay out of voluntary trade and only intervene if any party attempts to coerce others through initiating physical force or fraud. In such cases, the government can use force, but only in retaliation against those who initiate it, such as corporations that try to defraud their customers or others.
As for Google, it may indeed influence elections and people’s opinions about climate change or about any other topic. But it does so by “organizing the world’s knowledge and making it universally accessible.” There is no coercion involved. No matter how Google’s search results are sorted, they do not force people to adopt any views. Those reading the results of Google’s search algorithms are free to reject or accept what they see.
And this does not apply only to search engines like Google—which provides us an enormous value by making access to information fast and convenient. People have had to always judge information, no matter what its source: claims heard around pre-historic campfires about vast mammoth herds (or predators lurking nearby), books found on library shelves, or newspapers.
We do not know automatically whether the information claims correspond to reality or not but have to think for ourselves to find the answer, to form an opinion, and to act accordingly. The responsibility for independent thinking and acting is ours. Whether we accept it or not can bear life-and-death consequences.
Even if abandoning independent thinking does not literally kill us, it drastically alters our lives, when we conform to others’ opinions based on emotional pull and on unexamined, unquestioned beliefs in search engine results or media stories–and elect bad governments.
Yes, let’s scrutinize what we read—no matter what the source, because independent thinking is our only means of choosing and achieving right, life-enhancing goals. But let’s leave Google alone, even if it chooses to spend its money on “Camps” and promotes climate alarmism.
Views that we disagree with (no matter how popular) are no threat, as long as the government performs its proper role and protects us against those who initiate force. Instead of worrying about Google’s influence, we should oppose a real threat: government’s initiation of force, through measures such as carbon taxes or dictating how Google should operate.