The White House has launched a new salvo in its ongoing assault on the media and free speech. Instead of railing against newspapers and cable news channels, Donald J. Trump’s ire is now being directed at Google.
Somehow the president’s gotten it into his head that the search engine’s algorithms are “rigged.” He’s convinced that whenever anyone inputs “Trump news,” only negative stories - the ubiquitous “fake news” stories - about him rise to the top.
It’s a little unclear how the president developed this theory, although his favorite “real news” channel, Fox, had reported similar claims early Tuesday morning. If Trump was more adept at using computers, he might realize that sites linked to “real news” organizations tend to take precedence over blogs and conservative opinion sites.
The president’s aversion to email and computers is well-known. It appears his only nod to technology manifests itself in his compulsive urge to tweet whatever happens to be on his mind. If he was truly concerned about the negative coverage he invites, he might re-think some of the actions he takes and statements he makes. Major news organizations are focused on fact, not fiction.
Late on Tuesday, the president said, “Google and Twitter and Facebook, they’re really treading on very, very troubled territory. And they have to be careful.”
That may not sound like a threat, but nothing the administration does should be taken at face value. Trump’s ongoing assaults on the media and his obsessive attempts to employ government agencies - including the FCC, the IRS, and the Department of Justice - to bend established norms is on display for all the world to see on an almost-daily basis. Presidential musings are often menacing and meant to intimidate; rarely are they oblique.
Portions of a pair of Tuesday’s Trump Tweets read as follows: “They are controlling what we can and cannot see. This is a very serious situation - will be addressed!” He also queried of algorithm-driven search results: “Illegal?”
Realistically, the only thing the president wants anyone to see is what he wants us to see: good news about Trump, 24/7. Anything else should be outlawed. Earlier in the day, Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow stated that the White House is “taking a look” at whether or how Google should be regulated by the government.
Republicans, as a rule, do not believe in government overreach. They find excessive rules and over-regulation abhorrent. So, it should come as no surprise that they and their Democratic nemeses actually agreed in pointing out that government has no place monitoring search results or regulating online content. Nor did advocates of free speech - both conservative and progressive - or the folks in Silicon Valley.
Several weeks back, an internal letter - made available to The New York Times - circulated among Google employees that voiced concerns over the company’s willingness to adhere to censorship requirements “that raise urgent moral and ethical issues.”
Google’s employees were responding to the company’s decision to secretly build a censored version of its search engine for China. Which, if Trump had his way, is exactly what he would have Google do for all of us here at home.
Most Americans don’t understand what bots are. We don’t quite get trolling. For many, cookies are something that make us gain weight, not annoying tech tidbits whose purpose is to clutter our computer screens with useless junk and unwanted ads. We may not understand how algorithms work or how invasive revolutionary forms of artificial intelligence programs are fast becoming. It sounds a bit ominous. You can almost understand how it makes the president a little crazy.
Enduring nuisances and sensory overload is a necessary evil when consumers opt to use search engines like Google. As bad as it may be, however, it’s a lot better than having Big Brother - or Donald J. Trump - dictate what we can and cannot see, hear or think.
Blair Bess is a Los Angeles-based television writer, producer, and columnist. He edits the online blog Soaggragated.com, and can be reached at BBess.firstname.lastname@example.org.