11 conspiracy theories about search, Google and Big Tech
From your phone is spying on you to Google manipulating ad auctions, here are some of the juiciest conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are everywhere online. Few are shockingly true, most are not, but one shared trait among all conspiracy theories is that a simple truth could be mixed up in a murky sludge of fact and fiction.
This is especially true for conspiracy theories related to search, Big Tech and Google because of the public’s misconceptions about each platform.
As search marketers, we know the teams at Google and other tech companies are doing a lot for the search and advertising world, but we can’t deny that Big Tech has gotten their hands caught in the cookie jar more than once.
Whether fact or fiction, conspiracy theories can be entertaining, bizarre and freaky. Here are some of the juiciest conspiracy theories surrounding Big Tech, Google, and search, and the facts behind those theories.
Theory #1: Advertisers and your phone are recording and listening to you all the time.
What’s true: Your phone can record you when you use voice search and certain applications.
I’m sure most of us have heard this theory floating around. Although there’s no concrete evidence that your phone or device is recording you all the time, there’s evidence that your device can record your conversations, including your voice searches within certain applications.
For example, in 2019, Bloomberg reported that Facebook hired contract workers to transcribe voice messages from its Portal video app, which users may not have been aware of. Like Amazon’s Alexa, when users activate voice search by saying phrases such as “Hey Alexa” or “Hey Portal,” the application is likely storing the user’s speech.
Facebook claimed that the transcribers were using these messages to improve the voice-activated software algorithm but had halted the use of human review. Both Facebook and Amazon give users the option to turn off this feature and opt-out of human review.
As for that scarily-accurate ad that seemed to target you based on your last conversation? Ask anyone working in paid advertising. They can explain that it all comes down to profiling data collected from numerous sources, including cookies, third parties, fingerprinting, browsing history and behavioral data.
However, with third-party cookies going extinct, the future of advertising will look quite different for both marketers and consumers alike.
Theory #2: Advertisers, governments and hackers are secretly controlling your devices.
What’s true: Your tech device is susceptible to manipulation.
Remember that famous Burger King commercial that played during the Super Bowl a few years ago? It grabbed everyone’s attention, but it also forced Google Home devices to start talking about Whopper burgers without anyone’s consent. No doubt it was a brilliant ad, but it exposed a weakness in the devices that live in the privacy of our own homes.
Incidents such as this are not one-off; Amazon’s Echo devices were reportedly triggered by commercials and television shows. Although both companies have patched up this issue by teaching their respective devices to “ignore” specific commands, it leaves the door open for future device manipulation by malicious parties or practical jokesters.
If that’s not worrying enough, in 2018, researchers used subliminal and hidden commands (using sound undetectable to human ears) to manipulate devices, forcing phones to visit certain websites, dial phone numbers, send text messages, and even take pictures; further proving how wide this door can be if exploited by hackers or other parties.
As many have long suspected, governing bodies, including the U.S. government, are just as capable of device manipulation. The New York Times recently reported that law enforcement and intelligence agencies can “reliably crack the encrypted communications of any iPhone or Android smartphone.”
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Theory #3: Google prioritizes its own brand over other sites.
What’s true: The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Google for anticompetitive behavior.
There have been rumors that websites utilizing Google’s platforms, such as Google Analytics and Google Ads, will rank higher on the search engine results page.
Google’s John Mueller busted this rumor ages ago on Twitter, saying there is no penalty or reward for using (or not using) Google Analytics.
While using Google Analytics isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get a boost in organic search rankings, the issue begs whether Google manipulates search by prioritizing its brand over all else, essentially acting as a monopoly.
Type in any search query into Google, and you’ll see its evidence of Google products everywhere on the screen:
- Google Ads right underneath the search bar
- Knowledge panels with contextual information
- “People Also Ask” questions and answers
- Google Maps and Google Business Profile listings
- YouTube videos
- Google Shopping ads
Although it creates a fantastic user experience, these products also prevent users from engaging with other platforms and competitors outside of Google’s ecosystem, keeping all revenue going to one source.
Digital marketers are not the only ones who have noticed this invasion on the search engine results page. In 2020, the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google for monopolistic practices and anticompetitive behavior. Justice Department lawyers said, “This lawsuit strikes at the heart of Google’s grip over the internet for millions of American consumers, advertisers, small businesses and entrepreneurs beholden to an unlawful monopolist.”
Theory #4: Google’s search algorithm is racist and sexist.
What’s true: Biases exist, and there are existing efforts to improve search results.
Search algorithms are designed as a process to solve problems by retrieving or sorting information within a data structure, so could an algorithm reflect racist or sexist biases?
Last year, a group of Democratic senators wrote a letter to Google highlighting how its search algorithm seemed to show biases that perpetuate racist stereotypes. This isn’t the first time Google has come under fire for this issue.
Several examples have demonstrated existing biases against black women in search results, including a comparison between queries like “unprofessional hairstyles” and “professional hairstyles,” which show a stark difference in image results.
However, to amend this issue, Google has made steps to diversify its image results by changing its search algorithm. Safiya Noble, a professor at USC and author of “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism,” also notes that “after years of featuring pornography as the primary representation of black girls, Google made modifications to its algorithm.”
Theory #5: The government is working with Big Tech to spy on you.
What’s true: Big tech works with the government and on several projects, including surveillance, defense and cloud computing.
While it’s unclear if the government partners with tech companies to spy on you, several reports confirm the government’s and tech giants’ partnerships in cloud computing.
For example, the New York Times reported that Google was involved in a Pentagon contract called Project Maven, “a military program that uses artificial intelligence to interpret video images and could be used to refine the targeting of drone strikes.” However, thousands of Google employees demanded the company withdraw from the project, fearing the potential misuse of AI.
Although CEO Sundar Pichai stated the company would not develop AI for weapons, he asserted that Google would continue to work with the military in many areas for future developments.
Google isn’t the only Big Tech company working with the government. Amazon and Microsoft also have subcontracted with several federal law enforcement agencies and the Department of Defense, providing services such as cloud and commercial solutions.
In 2019, Microsoft was also awarded a $10 billion government contract called JEDI to provide cloud solutions for the Pentagon.
Theory #6: Google’s search algorithm is anti-conservative.
What’s true: Google censors fake news or misinformation.
There’s an endless number of theories out there about the nefariousness of Google. Still, one of the most popular notions is that Google suppresses websites that represent conservative viewpoints and news sources. However, the truth is less nefarious than many would like to believe.
With disinformation spreading like wildfire on the internet, tech companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook all take responsibility in battling fake news. In 2017, Google began cracking down on the spread of misinformation in its search engine results by rolling out a search algorithm update called Project Owl.
This search update targeted fake news and conspiracy theories by removing search results, search suggestions and rich snippets that promote misinformation, hate, violence, harm and explicit content.
Controversial topics and heavily-biased content were also flagged for review and removal. In conjunction with this effort, Google emphasized authoritative and factually correct content. E-A-T, which stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, has become a guiding principle for how Google determines content quality and search rankings.
Regardless of where content leans politically, Google’s goal is to deliver factual, quality content to the user, not misinformation and fake news.
Theory #7: Big Tech is interfering with elections and politics.
What’s true: Tech companies such as Google and Facebook allow political ads on their platforms.
When it comes to the world of politics, tech companies often find themselves in very sticky situations. For example, in 2019, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion for data misuse and privacy violations in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The obtained data was used to target voters during the 2016 presidential election. The controversy brought to light the role tech companies may play in influencing voters using their platforms.
Paid ads are a large source of revenue for Google and Facebook, which are the largest ad-selling companies in the world. Political ads are also allowed on both platforms (depending on the country and region), with certain restrictions to support responsible practices.
To target users on either platform, political advertisers must go through a rigid verification process and are given restricted windows of time where ads are run. During certain election campaign periods, ads are not allowed.
Whether these guardrails promote responsible campaign practices is debatable.
Theory #8: Google’s Incognito is not really incognito.
What’s true: Google is facing a lawsuit for collecting user data in incognito mode.
Most of us are under the impression that if you need to surf the web privately on Google’s Chrome browser, you should use Incognito mode. However, many users may not be aware that their activity is still visible to various parties, including the websites they visit.
This confusion over privacy has led to consumers slapping a $3 billion lawsuit against Google for not disclosing its data collection practices to users when using Incognito mode.
The general assumption is that when a user is browsing in Incognito mode, there is absolute privacy, meaning no browsing history, cookies or personal information is saved. But the fact is, Incognito mode still allows marketers and advertisers to see your activities when you visit a website during a session.
Even though cookies are not saved on Incognito browsers, advertisers can still identify pieces of information by utilizing data such as IP addresses and your browser type, a process called “fingerprinting.”
Theory #9: Tech companies use planned obsolescence to make you buy more.
What’s True: Apple paid $113 million to settle claims of intentionally slowing down iPhones.
Planned obsolescence is not a new business concept. From light bulbs to pantyhose, many goods manufacturers find ways to encourage consumers to purchase new products when older models expire.
A few years ago, consumers saw this practice in action when Apple admitted that it slowed down older versions of their iPhones through software updates. Investigators said that Apple knew of the slowdowns and worked to conceal the information from the public. As a result, the company paid $113 million to settle consumer fraud lawsuits and was fined 25 million euros by France’s competition watchdog, DGCCRF.
Theory #10: Big Tech search algorithms are pushing people toward extremism.
What’s true: Content platforms are starting to regulate and “de-platform” extremist content.
Multiple tech companies have come under scrutiny for search algorithms that potentially amplify and suggest extremist content, including Amazon, Facebook, Google and YouTube.
Although each platform has its way of tracking user preferences, their search suggestions encourage users to discover new content related to their query, whether the content promotes misinformation.
In an investigative article, the Wall Street Journal reported that YouTube’s recommendations often lead users to channels that feature conspiracy theories, partisan viewpoints and misleading videos, even when those users haven’t shown interest in such content.”
Amazon has also been criticized for suggesting anti-Semitic children’s books and Nazi propaganda. At the same time, Facebook’s internal documents show that since 2016, the company knew that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to [its] recommendation tools.”
Since the insurrection at the U.S. capitol, tech companies such as YouTube and Twitter are ramping up their policing to remove content that promotes extremist views, forcing extremist content creators to join other platforms.
One NPR article notes, “While de-platforming hasn’t completely stopped the flow of extremist content online, it has helped marginalize extremists.”
Theory #11: Google manipulates ad auctions with price-fixing.
What’s true: Google faces a lawsuit for misleading advertisers about its ad auction processes.
Advertising is Google’s primary source of revenue. In 2020, the company generated over $147 billion, approximately 80% of their year’s total revenue.
Over millions of advertisers depend on the platform to generate paid traffic to their sites, entering into auctions where each can bid for valuable keywords. Google controls this entire bidding process, and its lack of transparency has become an issue of controversy.
In another antitrust lawsuit, the tech giant was accused of price-fixing auctions and misleading advertisers about the process of bidding. There were also accusations that Google and Facebook conspired to agree, called “Jedi-Blue,” around programmatic advertising, which would give Facebook a “win-rate” guarantee during auctions.
As a result, many claim that Google is, yet again, engaging in anti-competitive practices and should be held accountable.
Whether or not you believe in conspiracy theories, there seems to be a consensus that Google and Big Tech may have too much influence over consumer data, the media and politics.
As laws and privacy regulations evolve and lawmakers hold these companies accountable, there’s no doubt that more investigations will lead to new information coming to light.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.