If you have a friend, colleague, or relative who’s skeptical of Silicon Valley’s threat to democracy and individual liberty, you could do worse than send them a link to The Creepy Line, a new documentary from the team behind 2016’s Clinton Cash.
The Creepy Line features a series of interviews with experts on the subject of big tech, (primarily Google but also Facebook). While much of its information in the documentary will not come as a surprise to long-term observers of Google, it serves as an excellent introduction for the general public, breaking down the complexities of big tech and covering issues often ignored by the mainstream media.
The title is based on a quote from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who told an interviewer in 2010 that his company’s policy is to “get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” If the documentary has a central thesis, it’s that the line was crossed long ago.
In the documentary, Yelp Senior VP Luther Lowe notes how Google pivoted from being just a search engine whose mission was, in co-founder Larry Page’s words, “to get people onto Google and off of Google into the open web as quickly as possible” to a sprawling empire whose mission was to keep users on its platforms and devices in order to harvest their data.
The documentary does a good job explaining the machinery of Google to a general audience. Concepts like PageRank, the technology that gave the search engine its crucial early advantage, are explained in simple terms. Crucially, the documentary also explains Google’s business model, and why the company feels compelled to know everything about its users.
Psychologist and search engine expert Dr. Robert Epstein explains how Google’s profits are tied to search histories of users, which, as Robert Epstein explains, can “tell someone immediately whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, whether you prefer one breakfast cereal over another, whether you’re gay or straight — it’s going to tell you thousands of things about a person over time, because they can see what websites you’re going to.”
The profile that Google builds on its users is “detailed, granular, and never goes away” explains Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer. This provided companies with the first large-scale model of targeted advertising, which still provides Google with 90 percent of its revenue. Google knows who’s search for an umbrella, the documentary explains, which allows umbrella sellers to target their ads to those individuals.
Some of the documentary, like the explanation of Google’s often-mocked former motto, “don’t be evil,” and how the company’s founders always have controlling shares, will not be new to long-term observers of the company. But they are important details for a mass audience, many of whom have only recently become aware of Google’s nefarious potential.
Epstein explains how Google’s priorities began to shift. Driven by its hunger for more user data, Google moved away from its focus on search. “They were getting a lot of information from people using a search engine, but if people went directly to a website — uh-oh, that’s bad! Because Google doesn’t know that. So they developed a browser, now the most widely-used browser in the world, Chrome. By getting people to use Chrome, they were able now to collect information about every single website you visited, whether or not you were using their search engine.”
Epstein also explained how the growth of smartphones spurred Google to create an operating system, Android, now the most widely used smartphone operating system. Whether you use a smartphone or a browser or a search engine to find what you’re looking for online, Google wants to know about it.
Opening with the issue of privacy, the documentary then pivots into the effects of big tech on democracy.
Epstein gives an important counter-argument to the “fake news” panic pushed by Democrats and the mainstream media, giving three reasons why we shouldn’t care about the media-manufactured problem. Fake news, explains Epstein, is competitive — I can publish fake news stories about you, and you can do the same to me.
“There have always been fake news stories,” notes Epstein. Fake news is also visible, which allows readers to critically examine or even just ignore them, which, as Epstein notes, frequently happens. The third and most important reason explained by Epstein is confirmation bias — fake news stories are designed to harvest clicks from partisans with already-engrained beliefs. “You don’t really change people’s opinions with fake news stories. You support beliefs that people already have.”
In the furor over fake news, it’s an oft-missed point, despite the fact that even avowedly anti-Trump researchers have pointed out that fake news doesn’t swing votes.
What does swing votes, explains Epstein, is hidden bias in search engines that don’t trigger our natural confirmation biases, which usually provide a safeguard against at least some forms of partisan bias. “The real problem is these new forms of influence that number one, are not competitive, number two, people can’t see, and number three, aren’t subject to confirmation bias.”
“We’re in a world right now in which our opinions, beliefs, attitudes, voting preferences, purchases are all being pushed one way or another, every single day, by forces we cannot see.”
Later in the documentary, Epstein explains his experiments on the effects of search engine manipulation. Covered before at Breitbart News, this research remains eye-popping in its projections — that search engines could shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by double-digit margins by manipulating search results. What’s more, explains Epstein, most participants weren’t even aware that the search results had been presented with were biased. This, explains Epstein, makes search engine bias far more dangerous than the biases of partisan media, which are comparatively easy to detect.
The clearest policy recommendation made in The Creepy Line, one increasingly made by critics of big tech companies, is that the companies must make a choice: do they want to be publishers, with a right to edit and promote political content as they see fit, while also accepting legal responsibility for that content? Or do they want to take a hands-off approach, letting users decide what trends or doesn’t trend on their platforms, and enjoying the reward of legal immunity for their users’ content in doing so?
The Creepy Line’s main problem — a problem likely to afflict any documentary that tries to sum up the problems of Silicon Valley in fewer than two hours — is that it doesn’t cover enough ground. For example, far more could be said about Google’s vast lobbying machinery in Washington D.C., and the host of politicians who now take Silicon Valley money and parrot Silicon Valley talking points. Those who worried about the influence of Wall Street in the 1980s should turn their attention to the influence of Mountain View today. It’s a topic touched on in more detail by Creepy Line director Matthew Taylor in his post-launch interview with Breitbart News.
Verdict: While experienced critics of Google and other tech companies might find that parts of The Creepy Line cover old ground, it’s also a timely and engaging documentary for members of the public who are just waking up to the issue. If anyone you know needs convincing that the runaway power of big tech is the defining political issue of our times, send them a link to this documentary.