Dennis Prager, the right-leaning radio host and pundit who runs the widely successful nonprofit PragerU, testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. His subject was Google's alleged censorship of conservatives.
"I promise you, one day you will say, first they came after conservatives, and I said nothing," opined Prager, invoking the famous post-Holocaust era poem by Martin Niemöller. "And then they came after me—and there was no one left to speak up for me."
YouTube—Google's video-sharing subsidiary—houses PragerU free of charge. The nonprofit has more than 2.2 million subscribers there, and its YouTube videos receive more than a billion views a year, according to Prager, who concurrently says the tech giant is censoring him.
To back that up, he cites YouTube's decision to restrict approximately 20 percent of his online 5-minute video shorts on the grounds that they contain mature content—thus hiding those videos from the approximately 1.5 percent of users who elect for restricted control. Karan Bhatia, formerly a conservative political operative and now Google's vice president for government affairs and public policy, testified that the approach allows users and institutions to filter out content with adult themes.
Prager begs to differ. "Of course we know why," he said during Tuesday's hearing. "Because they come from a conservative perspective."
Unfortunately for this argument, Google records show that the Huffington Post, Vox, Buzzfeed, NowThis, and The Daily Show all have much larger swaths of content restricted under YouTube's policy. Seventy-one percent of videos from The Young Turks—a leftist channel—are blocked, dwarfing PragerU's share:
As Sen. Cruz brings up Prager, take a look at our one-pager: pic.twitter.com/hqgR41yGi6
— Robert Winterton (@RobPWJ) July 16, 2019
Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), who chaired the hearing, pressed Bhatia on Prager's restricted videos. "Among those that are censored include a video on the Ten Commandments," Cruz said. "Another one censored includes a video on the history of the nation of Israel. The restrictions are purportedly for blocking things like pornography, but apparently in YouTube's world, talking about the Ten Commandments and the nation of Israel is comparable and should be blocked."
"Respectfully, senator, that's not right," replied Bhatia, explaining that those videos contained mature topics—murder, rape, etc. He reiterated that they are still visible to the "98.5 percent" of YouTube users who do not opt for restricted mode.
That falls far short of censorship. Would Cruz prefer that the choice to hide certain bits of content—an option provided by a private company—be taken away from free-thinking individuals and institutions?
Ironically, Cruz does support censorship—when it fits within his ideological wheelhouse. "If someone uses [Google or YouTube] to commit slander, or to transmit classified material, or to traffic guns or drugs, far too often Google is off the hook," he said in his opening statement. As such, he suggested amending Section 230 to make social media sites criminally and civilly liable for every post published on those platforms. Cruz is casting himself as a defender of free speech, but the actual policy change that he's proposing would give tech giants an incentive to suppress more speech.
Cruz also accused Google of heavily weighing its search results toward liberal perspectives. "Google's control over what people hear, read, watch, and say is unprecedented," the senator said. "When we search on Google, we see only the web pages Google decides we should see."
Google News may well skew left: A study by the media company AllSides found that approximately 65 percent of the company's search engine results come from left-leaning sources. (Full disclosure: I used to work at AllSides.) But that doesn't mean the platform is rigged against any one ideological standpoint. Its results can be explained by the company's popularity algorithm—which, true to its name, showcases the most popular results—as well as the fact that there are more liberal sources available for the parsing. What the government would do to rectify this remains unclear.
Cruz and his conservative cohort also fail to reckon with the fact that right-leaning media conglomerates are often masters of using online algorithms—the very ones they lament—to their advantage. Francesca Tripodi, a sociologist at James Madison University, gave an example of that when she testified that Fox News is 6.7 times more likely to use "AOC"—the moniker for socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.)—as a search engine optimization tag than the liberal outlet MSNBC, "thereby increasing the probability that searching for the phrase will link audiences to conservative news coverage of a liberal politician."
Tripodi adeptly unmasked the root of the problem among right-leaning lawmakers. "Privately-held corporations, like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, are not the new public square. They are sophisticated advertising firms designed to profit from the data we provide to them," she testified.
"Simply put, if content is readily available, it is not being suppressed," Tripodi continued. "What conservatives who are arguing censorship are frustrated with is not the constitutional right to free speech, but is actually a grievance against a free market economy."