A new documentary, revealing the way in which the major technology companies Google and Facebook manipulate consumers through the collection of users' data, sheds light on current controversies surrounding privacy and political bias. Called "The Creepy Line," the film argues that even the most intelligent people among us are serving as unwitting pawns in a power grab, enabled by mathematical algorithms, without our being aware of it.
The title of the 80-minute movie is taken from a phrase used by the former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, who in a 2010 interview said:
"There's what I call the 'creepy line,' and the Google policy about a lot of these things is to get right up to the 'creepy line' but not cross it."
Produced by investigative journalist Peter Schweizer and directed by M.A. Taylor, the film both claims and illustrates that Google and Facebook not only crossed that line long ago, but continue to push it further away. Schweizer, author of the New York Times best-seller Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, is among the prominent interviewees in the film. Others include Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson and American psychology professor and researcher Dr. Robert Epstein.
Peterson is best known for his widely popular YouTube videos criticizing political correctness and taking issue with the Trudeau government's passage of a bill rendering gender identity as a prohibited ground of discrimination. His conservative message gained him both fame and notoriety.
Epstein, formerly the editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, is the co-author of a 2015 study titled: "The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of elections." Although self-described in the film as apolitical, Epstein said that he viewed Hillary Clinton as a more suitable candidate for president than Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Peterson and Epstein, in spite of their political differences, are in total agreement about what they consider to be a dangerous abuse of power on the part of the two tech giants, which, for all intents and purposes, possess a monopoly on the digital information highway.
The film opens with a written quote by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke:
"Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all."
It continues with a segment from NBC's "The Today Show" in 1994, in which the hosts are asking, "What is the Internet anyway?" It is both an amusing and a startling reminder of how far the World Wide Web and universal home-computer usage have progressed in less than three decades.
This progress has a "dark side," however, according to the film, which takes viewers through a step-by-step description of the advent of search engines and the spread of social media -- free services that, unbeknownst to most of us, are actually costing us dearly. In fact, asserts the film -- which shows a clip of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before the US Senate and explaining that he makes money by "running ads" -- it is we who have become the product. It is the collection of our personal data and the dissemination of it to companies vying for our business that make us literal targets for advertisers.
As if this were not "creepy" enough, there is another process going on that is far less transparent: "listing" -- the order in which information appears on Google. The "list effect" on our cognitive functioning, Epstein explains, is that we believe that the items appearing at the top of a set of search results -- whether the category is dog food or political candidates -- are the most relevant, valuable or true. Google and Facebook are able, thus, to prioritize the information we receive, while pretending to be neutral platforms, rather than content producers exercising editorial control. It is this pretense that exempts them from being subject to the laws governing publishers.
"If they have this kind of power, then democracy is an illusion," Epstein says.
"There have to be in place numerous safeguards to make sure not only that they don't exercise these powers, but that they can't exercise these powers. The Internet belongs to all of us. It does not belong to Google or Facebook."
He then warns: "The more rope we give them, the sooner we are all hanged."
Peterson suggests a different solution, that of "multiple competing search engines and... multiple Facebooks, because at least then we'd have a diversity of ethical conundrums, instead of this totalitarian conundrum that we have right now."
Schweizer says that if Google and Facebook continue to edit, filter and steer content for political purposes, they are going to have to be "regulated every bit as much as any media company." This makes sense, he explains, because "it essentially allows the tech companies to decide, now that they've grown up, what they actually want to be. And it's a choice that they should... be forced to make... and not hide behind this fraud of legislation that gives them a free hand when they don't deserve [one].
His summary of the situation, however, is far more ominous:
"The traditional notion of totalitarianism was resting on the premise or the idea that a government would try to achieve total control over your life [through] the might and muscle of government, and to do so under compulsion. Today, we essentially have a totalitarian force in the world, and that is these large tech companies. But guess what? They didn't use storm troopers. They didn't use the gulag. They didn't use the arrest of political prisoners... We all opted in... We volunteered for this arrangement. And we live in a world today in which these tech giants have a level of control and an ability to manipulate us that Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Mussolini could only have dreamed of."
"The Creepy Line" premiered on September 17 in New York and September 19 in Washington. On September 21, the Capitol Forum news and analysis site reported that the White House had prepared a two-part draft of an executive order "to better police dominant online platforms" and "to enforce against anticompetitive conduct when they have authority, and, if they don't, to report concerns or issues to the Federal Trade Commission or the Department of Justice."
Ruthie Blum is the author of "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring.'"