Op-ed: Is Big Tech biased?

If all you knew of America’s biggest tech companies was what emerges from the echo chambers and grandstanding that is Washington, D.C. political chatter, you’d likely have grave concerns about their collective future. Perhaps you are concerned. After all, if one thing brings Americans of different political persuasions together, it’s worrying about the direction of the tech industry.

It’s time for a little perspective. No company is perfect, and each should be held accountable for its actions. But many of our fears are just plain overblown.

For those not following the near-constant flow of stories, here is a highlight reel from the last month: Democrats in the House of Representatives are launching antitrust investigations. Republicans in the Senate are holding hearings on the “stifling” of free speech. The White House launched a tool for users to report online platforms for censorship. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has made breaking up big tech companies a centerpiece of her presidential campaign. Freshman Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) doesn’t think her plan goes far enough. The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission are sharpening their knives.

There might not be another issue in the past decade with as much unnecessary stamina as the idea that we need to “do something” about big tech. There also might not be another issue as misunderstood and confused.

Let’s take one of the latest attacks on tech companies as just one example of how misunderstandings and confusion can fuel bad public policy ideas.

One recent argument against tech companies is based on their perceived biases. Companies like Facebook and Google, the argument goes, have strong viewpoints and are discriminating against users who disagree with the Silicon Valley elites in charge. As a result of this widely held belief, proponents conclude, “We desperately need laws against internet censorship.”

There’s just one problem with this argument: While it’s easy to find anecdotes of bias — think of how much information flows across these platforms — the data to support the idea of a systemic bias just is not there. In fact, based on the data, there is no reason to believe that companies like Facebook and Google have much interest in our political opinions at all.

First, take a look at Google. The Economist recently published a report looking specifically for evidence of bias in the company’s search results. They conclude that “[o]ur statistical study revealed no evidence of ideological bias in the search engine’s news tab.” Fox News’ coverage of the study could not have put it better, with a headline leading off with this rather straightforward statement: “Google rewards reputable reporting.”

My own analysis of Facebook’s latest Transparency Report suggests that bias within the company isn’t driving which posts the company takes down for violations of its community standards linked to hate speechbullying, and harassment. Instead, of the 6.6 million posts taken down for these reasons in the first quarter of 2019, a majority (about 55 percent) came as the result of user complaints. In other words, other users may be calling out rules-violating posts, but the company doesn’t appear to be carrying out some kind of campaign against this or that segment of its customer base.

While neither of these two data points are definitive, they should give us some pause when we hear calls for breaking up, regulating, and otherwise attacking tech companies under general claims of “bigness,” “bias,” or worse. Instead, we should be more thoughtful, thorough, and humble.

Companies of this size can and do make mistakes, as Facebook’s pending settlement with the FTC over privacy violations shows. But each claim should be evaluated on its own and weighed with evidence independent of some larger narrative. Each company should be evaluated individually. This is the only way to ensure that today’s concerns do not become a new, digital McCarthyism.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.