When the president of the United States starts calling out and criticizing one of the world’s most powerful technology companies, that seems like a development worth taking seriously. Particularly when he adds, “This is a very serious situation—will be addressed!”
That’s what Donald Trump wrote in a tweet this week alleging that Google’s search results are “RIGGED” and “suppressing voices of Conservatives.” The attack on Google echoed similar allegations by Trump against Facebook and Twitter earlier in August, when he tweeted that “Social Media is totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices” and pledged that his administration “won’t let that happen.” On Wednesday, Trump took aim at Google again, tweeting a video that appeared to show its homepage promoting President Obama’s State of the Union Addresses while ignoring his. The video was quickly debunked, but that won’t stop Trump’s followers from believing it.
Trump’s gripes may be ludicrous, as Kara Swisher argued Thursday in the New York Times. But his threat isn’t empty. Already, the tweets have created a political opening for an issue that barely registered on Washington’s radar during the tech-friendly Obama administration. That issue is a national debate over the power of Big Tech—and, potentially, government regulation.
It’s a debate worth having. But not on Trump’s terms.
This is not to say that Trump’s tweets can or should be ignored. It probably isn’t a coincidence that Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday, urging it to open an antitrust investigation into Google. Meanwhile, a recent poll from the conservative Media Research Center suggests Trump’s gripes are resonating with his base, too: 65 percent of self-described conservatives said they believe social networks are “intentionally censoring conservatives and conservative ideas.” Former top Trump deputy Steve Bannon told CNN’s Oliver Darcy he thinks regulation of Big Tech will be “a massive issue” in future elections—perhaps as soon as 2020.
For those who have spent years calling for greater scrutiny and regulation of Google, Facebook, and other internet giants, it’s awfully tempting to take Trump’s tweets as an invitation to pile on. Yes, social media companies are led by unelected rulers whose incentives, priorities, and politics may differ sharply from our own. Yes, all algorithms have biases baked in, even Google’s vaunted search algorithm. Yes, the major internet platforms have accrued an unhealthy amount of power over the flow of information—more than they’ve shown themselves capable of responsibly wielding.
To hitch these substantive criticisms to the wagon of Trump’s grievances about liberal bias, however, is to commit a dangerous category error.
This president’s broadsides against Big Tech aren’t really about what’s wrong with Big Tech. They’re about his ego, his power, and his petulant brand of politics, which appeals to the bitterness of Americans who find themselves on the wrong end of sweeping changes in the economy and, especially, the culture. Most of all, they’re about his greatest vulnerability: the truth.
Just look at Trump’s anti-Google tweets this week. The first was a complaint that a search for “Trump news” turned up results from the “Fake News Media”—i.e., the mainstream media—and that those stories cast Trump in a negative light. That’s just as you’d expect, given that Trump is one of history’s least popular presidents and is embroiled in a sprawling scandal, or series of scandals, involving Russian election interference and payoffs to porn stars he slept with. Given the cascade of negative press about the president, it would be far more worrying if Google’s search results screened some of it out and elevated positive coverage to create the illusion of balance. But if Trump had his way, that’s exactly what Google would do. (Note to Google: Please don’t do this!)
Trump’s second swipe at Google lays out his modus operandi even more starkly: He tweeted a video that was itself a lie, then refused to acknowledge that it was false or retract it when challenged. That might seem crazy: In a world with Google, anyone with 30 seconds and an internet connection could see that Trump is lying. It is crazy—unless you can convince people not to trust Google. Which is, of course, exactly what Trump is trying to pull off.
This line of attack from Trump is deeply familiar to those in the news business. Trump has spent his entire presidency eroding the public’s trust in the mainstream media, because it’s the only way he can get away with his pathological dishonesty and blatant corruption. Those attacks have resonated because people already mistrusted the media, for reasons both legitimate and less so.
Now, with tech platforms under fire, Trump smells a similar weakness—and a similar opportunity. His smears of CNN and the New York Times go only so far, when people can find much of the same critical reporting in dozens of other outlets via Google, Facebook, or Twitter. But if Trump can undermine the credibility of the platforms themselves, then his supporters will have nowhere to turn, except for the insular world of his state-approved right-wing outlets.
As clearinghouses for news, the big internet platforms are deeply flawed, just as the mainstream media are. Those who care about a functioning democracy and an informed public shouldn’t stop pointing out those flaws. But with Trump now actively attempting to undermine both institutions in his quest to convince voters that truth isn’t truth, the jobs of critics and activists just got a lot more complicated. They have to be ready to press tech companies on their algorithms, their privacy practices, and their anti-competitive behavior—but also, when necessary, to defend them against the right wing’s bogus claims of liberal bias.
Google should be criticized, scrutinized, and regulated, because it’s scarily powerful, and it can’t be trusted to put society’s best interest first in every decision. But neither can Trump, his administration, or his allies in Congress. And right now, they’re the ones who hold the power to do something about it.