Yesterday, conservative columnist Rod Dreher of The American Conservative, a publication that I subscribed to back during the hideous reign of George W. Bush, noted that Google had essentially “memory holed” his work:
This started a wave of right-wing commentators checking their own sites, and finding that Google — but not Bing, DuckDuckGo, etc — had buried them completely. Not just that your site wouldn’t come up on the first Google page, but that it wouldn’t come up at all even if you used very specific search terms.
The notion of the “memory hole” comes from George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The main character, Winston, works for the ‘Ministry of Truth’ where he is tasked with falsifying history. Whenever the Party that rules his nightmare Britain changes its policy, agents at ‘MiniTru’ go back through all surviving historical documents and alter them to make it seems as if the current policy had always been the only policy. Any piece of information suggesting otherwise — along with the orders from above to change the records — are dropped into a chute by Winston’s workstation where they are incinerated instantly. This is the “memory hole” — where all unapproved information goes to die.
Google and other tech giants have unprecedented control over what we see and read. There banishment of conservative thought represents a real-life version of the memory hole. Perhaps more concerning is the migration of books, film, scientific publications, and government records to the Cloud, such that most people access them from a central database that leaves no hard copy behind, and such that the tech giants are solely responsible for maintaining them. The possibility to engage in tampering with history on a massive scale simply by writing a program, perhaps an AI, that goes through all of that material and scrubs certain ideas or thoughts, is terrifying. Imagine a future where the only copies of Huckleberry Finn on Earth are Kindle e-books, and an AI has purged them of the “N-word” (god I hate that weaselly evasion) and any other concepts that might trigger an SJW. Imagine in two generations nobody even realizing this is going on anymore. Horrifying.
The memory hole is bad, but there is another side of it as well that I’m not sure Orwell envisioned. In his world, thought criminals where simply rounded up by the Party and tortured into submission. In our own dystopia, thought criminals are instead shamed and ostracized by our own Party of corporate HR departments and their leftist radical online stormtroopers — using the electronic tools available to them from the tech giants. Twitter is ground zero for this effort, and one can’t escape it; even if one has the sense to stay off of it, rumors and smears about your heterodoxy easily metastasize like tumor cells through Twitter where they can ruin your reputation forever.
In one of my most-read posts, I wrote about my suspicion that Twitter’s algorithms are evolving to sow discord and misery in the human species. But I think Google may be doing something similar as well. It seems unlikely that leftist goons in Google’s dungeons manually annihilated Rod Dreher’s online presence. He’s not that big of a fish, and he’s not that offensive in the grand scheme of things. Instead, it seems more likely that an algorithm is working against conservatism and libertarianism sensu lato, somehow learning keywords or phrases that can be used to bury people in the search results. In other words, an automated memory hole let loose on the world to scrub unapproved thought; an AI-like entity whose job is to devour thoughts and reduce the achievable range of human conversation.
There’s another side to the Google story though — an anti memory hole if you will, that boosts content critical of conservative positions. If you Google my name by itself, all you find is the world’s most famous Jeff Morris, a cowboy actor from the glory days of Western films. If instead you Google “Jeff Morris UAB” (the university where I work), the first hit is my faculty page, but the next hit is to the semi-literate hit piece written about me by the journalist LARPers at our campus newspaper. (Seriously, it’s so bad that it went to print with the name of this blog misspelled…) Beneath that, in the top 10 hits, are three other links to the communist freak-out about my post arguing that Rashida Tlaib was more dangerous than any living white nationalist in the United States. Google also helpfully suggests that you might also want to do a search for “Jeff Morris White Nationalist” while you’re at it. Too bad you can’t sue an algorithm for libel.
What’s up with that? I have certainly done things with broader impact than dissing seditious congresswomen on the Internet, even if you take into consideration the thousands of people who were funneled toward that post by a few academic serial harassers on Twitter like arch-commie Kevin Bird. As of the publication of this article, my most famous scientific paper has been downloaded over 12,000 times, cited over 500 times, and has inspired research in a goodly number of other labs — but nothing about it makes the front page on Google. Nope, Google thinks more people care about me being yelled at by neckbeards on Twitter.
You might think, well, only a narrow segment of humanity cares about evolutionary theory compared to the number of wild-eyed screaming Bernie-bros out there. But if that were the cause then you would expect the same results if you search for me on other search engines, and that most definitely is not the case. On DuckDuckGo, in the top 10 hits there is only one focused on my “cancellation” — and that to a reddit post that doesn’t even show up on Google. You keep scrolling to the next 10 results and there aren’t any at all about the cancellation, but many about my research. Similarly on Bing — you get the reddit post, but nothing else even if you keep going for 50 more hits. Completely absent are the goofy speculations of our campus Barbara Walters-wannabe and the Twitter threads using me as a whipping-boy for attacks on freedom of speech. Neither Bing nor DuckDuckGo suggests that you might link me to “white nationalism” either — even though the clueless student who wrote the reddit post accused me of just that in the title of his post, meaning that both DuckDuckGo and Bing would have more justification in making such a connection than Google does.
So here, instead of the memory hole that buries pro-rightwing thought, we have a memory megaphone where Google boosts the signal of radical leftist cancel culture mobs. Again, I find it hard to believe that some pink-haired goon in a Google cubicle singled me out for abuse — this has to be automated somehow. But if Google has put in place an algorithm whose specific function is to harass people, this has got to be illegal. If it’s not, it needs to be.
For now the solution is obvious — if you aren’t a commie scumbag, use DuckDuckGo. But given the degree to which Google has its tentacles interlaced through almost every bottleneck in our tech infrastructure — not to mention its ties to the totalitarian rulers of China — it is necessary for legislators to address this kind of behavior as soon as possible.