Despite Joe Biden being the projected winner of the 2020 election, Donald Trump continues to press unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. Many of his initial election lawsuits focus on how mail-in votes are being processed, but he also claimed Thursday that he actually won despite “historical election interference” from Big Tech. That might seem like Trump searching for excuses, but there is reason to believe he and other conservative politicians are priming their constituents to think that Big Tech rigged the 2020 election in Democrats’ favor.
Contrary to repeated allegations, conservative voices are not silenced online, as my research has repeatedly indicated. Conservatism thrives on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Utilizing keyword curation and strategic signaling tactics, conservative pundits and politicians manipulate platforms to distract from events that hurt their political goals. These digital marketing techniques help to explain how seeking out more information about liberal phrases like “gender identity” or “social justice” on YouTube returns videos from conservative content creators like the Heritage Foundation, Jordan Peterson, and PragerU. Click on those videos, and YouTube doesn’t try to sneak in liberal ideas or steer the audience left—it autoplays a steady stream of videos that further support conservative perspectives.
The truth is that these companies have no vested interest in democracy—they are corporations that profit by operationalizing relevance. Google (and others) work by harvesting data about we like, who we follow, the words we search, how long we stay on different pages, and the hyperlinks on which we click so that they can try to “best match” the data they think we want to see. Epistemological frameworks shape what we search for, how, and why, and these keywords drive relevance—search engines return different content depending on if you seek out more information on “illegal immigration” vs. “undocumented workers.” Through a deep engagement with these frames, conservative content creators utilize social media optimization to amplify their ideas.
Despite conservatives’ use of these media-savvy tactics, the administration has repeatedly declared that search engines and social media censor conservative expression and suggested that Google manipulates votes. The claim is rooted in a highly misleading application of different studies. During a July 16, 2019, Senate judiciary hearing investigating claims about bias against conservatives—a hearing where I was also an expert witness—Sen. Ted Cruz called on Robert Epstein as a witness. Epstein is behavioral psychologist who runs the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, and he has repeatedly claimed that Google manipulates search returns to censor conservative content. In his testimony, Epstein said that Google influenced upward of 2 million votes during the 2016 election in favor of Hillary Clinton—and that similar manipulation tactics would be used in 2020 to shift more than 15 million votes.
However, his hypothesis that Google influenced U.S. elections has never been rigorously tested or reviewed by political or information scientists. These numbers are a projection, based on a series of separate experiments. In one, Epstein tested how the order of information impacts how users perceive it. In another, he gave users a list of keywords and tried to test the ideological leanings of the results returned. In a third, Epstein worked with independent voters and manipulated the returns himself to see if the order of information impacted voter behavior.
Epstein’s ordering of information swayed voter perceptions, but he has no evidence of Google playing the same rank-order gymnastics.
Studies such as these fail to understand how ideological differences are embedded in keywords and networks to begin with. Experimental studies of search-engine bias that determine in advance which search terms users enter or manually reorder returns don’t capture how users search in real life. Over the past week, voters weren’t given a set of terms to query—they used what they were hearing on news sources they trusted to seek out more information on their own. For example, Trump supporters who believe his assertions of voter fraud might query for more information pertaining to his tagline “stop the steal.” Do so, and Google autocompletes the query, suggesting that those who type “Stop the S” are looking to validate their notion of a “stolen” election. Failing to capture the everyday way people use search is just one example of how Epstein’s assertions lack scientific validity.
Yet Trump and other conservative politicians, repeatedly cite Epstein’s unreplicated and inflated claims to argue that Google purposefully orders its search returns in favor of Democratic candidates. In a letter sent to Google/Apple CEO Sundar Pichai on Thursday, Sens. Cruz, Ron Johnson, and Mike Lee used Epstein to argue that the company influenced voter turnout and behavior. In addition to Google, prominent politicians and conservative media companies are arguing that Facebook and Twitter were also responsible for what conservatives are referring to as “election censorship”— claiming that anti-conservative bias swayed the election in Biden’s favor. Parler, a conservative social media platform, is using the same messaging to recruit users away from Facebook.
Ironically, many conservative pundits and politicians are using the same platforms they claim silencing them to spread their messaging. Search for videos about “Big Tech Censorship” on YouTube, and the results include video after video claiming conservatives are being silenced. Facebook groups devoted to “reopening” America were used to mobilize right-wing activists to the vote-counting location in Detroit.. Trump has more than 88 million followers on Twitter, and even though Twitter posts notices under tweets that propagate disputed content, they are allowed to persist—and are shared by hundreds of thousands of other people. Furthermore, ethnographic research I conducted suggests that fact-checks only serve to bolster conservative claims that big tech is biased against conservatism.
To be sure, if recounts in key states produce a dramatic change in events, we are likely to see these allegations of big tech censorship fizzle out. But if Trump’s state-by-state litigations do not materialize, keep an eye out for claims of suppressing conservative voters to surface at the campaign-style rallies set to resume in states across the country. In the meantime, those who want to learn more about how to stop the steal can continue to do so by querying a search engine that is purportedly censoring them.