Trump vs Google: Search Me

Here at Signal, we don’t usually pounce on presidential tweets – most of the time they’re aimed at a domestic US audience, and there just isn’t that much geopolitically to read into them. But there are exceptions, like Tuesday’s complaints from President Trump about Google.


What happened: On Tuesday morning, President Trump blasted Google on Twitter, claiming that 96 percent of the search results that pop up when Googling for “Trump News” were “from National Left-Wing Media.” The president, who may have gotten the stat from a segment that aired on Fox News the night before, accused the search company and unspecified others of “suppressing voices of conservatives and hiding information and news that is good” and promised he would address the situation. Economic adviser Larry Kudlow later stated that the administration was “taking a look” at regulating Google. Google shot back with a statement insisting that politics do not factor into its search algorithms. On Tuesday afternoon, Trump expanded his criticism to include Twitter and Facebook, saying these companies were “treading on very, very troubled territory and they have to be careful.”

Why it’s important: It may be tempting to dismiss the president’s latest broadside against the tech sector. Remember when Trump accused Amazonof ripping off the Postal Service? There were a few splenetic tweets, a review was ordered, and then nothing happened. But social media bias is an issue that resonates more intensely with Trump’s base: a Pew Research poll from June found that more than half of Republican voters thought it was “very likely” that social media platforms intentionally censor political viewpoints, while 70 percent of all voters think it’s at least somewhat likely. It’s also a priority issue among some Republicans in Congress, including House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, who say that powerful Silicon Valley tech companies treat conservative voices unfairly. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and other social media execs are due to testify at a House hearing on the issue next week. With some Democrats also eager to rein in the power of the tech giants, albeit for different reasons, there’s at least some risk that the president’s complaints turn into action.

What could Trump do? Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has suggested that Google and Facebook should be regulated like public utilities, a move that could subject digital platforms to extra oversight over how they serve up their content. Think of the now-abolished pre-cable TV “fairness doctrine” that required broadcasters to air differing views on important public issues. But regulating search engines like that would take an act of Congress, and the Supreme Court would probably have something to say on the matter. The administration could also push regulators take a harder look at Google for antitrust violations: Google and its YouTube video subsidiary account for around 90 percent of all web searches in the US. If the government can find leverage, Google might be forced to make concessions that make it easier for rival search engines to gain an audience. But that would only obliquely address the issue that Trump is complaining about.

Next week’s congressional hearings on social media bias, which will feature executives from Twitter, Google, and Facebook, will give an indication of how likely congressional Republicans are to take up Trump’s cause. He’ll probably face an uphill battle. But in a world where most people now depend on search engines and social media to keep themselves informed, even small changes to the way information is served up by the world’s dominant search engine can have big effects on global politics. This is an issue we’ll be watching closely.

The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace launched in 2018 with the commitment of signatories to stand up to cyber threats like election interference, attacks on critical infrastructure, and supply chain vulnerabilities. Last week, on the first anniversary of the call, the number of signatories has nearly tripled to more than 1,000 and now includes 74 nations; more than 350 international, civil society and public sector organizations; and more than 600 private sector entities. These commitments to the Paris Call from around the world demonstrate a widespread, global, multi-stakeholder consensus about acceptable behavior in cyberspace.

Read More at Microsoft On The Issues.

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Forty years ago, Islamic extremists angry at the Saudi government's experiments with social liberalization laid siege to the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

To regain control, the House of Saud had to strike a deal with key conservative clerics whose blessing they needed in order to send troops into the mosque . The monarchy agreed to roll back all liberalization at home, and pledged to actively fund the spread of conservative wahhabi Islamic teachings around the globe.

To understand better how the repercussions of those choices are still with us today, we put some questions to Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and author of the magnificently written 2007 book The Siege of Mecca.

His answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Why is it important to mark the 40th anniversary of the siege?

YT: We are at a historic moment once again in Saudi Arabia, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman openly talking about how he wants to rectify the errors of 1979 and bring the country into a more socially liberal system. And he has done a lot already, allowing women to drive and lifting many other restrictions, allowing pop concerts, cinemas, tourism — all those things that remained banned in Saudi Arabia because of the 1979 deal between the House of Saud and the clerics. We are obviously talking about social as opposed to political liberalization now, as the kingdom's political system remains as oppressive as ever.

How did the event change Saudi Arabia's society?

YT: The 1979 events gave the upper hand to religious conservatives for nearly four decades, freezing the social reforms and keeping the kingdom's population under control of the religious establishment and its Vice and Virtue Police. That had repercussions in every sector, most notably education, which created a new generation steeped in ultra-conservative Islamic values. It is only after the 2001 attacks [of 9/11] that this began to change, with the most dramatic erosion of the clerics' power happening since 2016.

How did the siege affect Riyadh's foreign policy?

YT: The new pact between the clerics and the House of Saud also meant that the Saudi oil money was to be used to spread its ultra-conservative version of Islam around the world, at the expense of more moderate and open interpretations. That changed the discourse in Islamic countries all over, and indirectly fostered the rise of extremism.

The siege came a few months after the Iranian revolution, how did that play into things?

YT: There was a lot of confusion at first, as the US blamed Iran for the Mecca events and Iran blamed the US. But, all in all, the siege taught the Saudi royal family that the best way to confront Iran's aspirations to lead the pan-Islamic revolution was to stoke Sunni sectarianism that dismissed Iranians as not really Muslim because of their Shiite faith.

That became a point of convergence between the supporters of Juhayman [al-Oteibi, leader of the siege], the Saudi clerics, and the Saudi government. And we see the repercussions of that rise of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism across the region today.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he is trying to move Saudi Arabia back onto the pre-1979 course of social liberalization. Is that possible?

YT: Well, empirically it is happening. I refer you to the piece I just wrote from Saudi Arabia for the WSJ. Times are changing and the influence of social media and the internet in general on young Saudis is massive, opening up their minds. Also, hundreds of thousands of young Saudis have traveled to the US to study on King Abdullah scholarships in the past decade, bringing back fresh ideas.

So far the backlash to the changes in the kingdom has been very limited. The question is: is Prince Mohammed dragging a reluctant kingdom into modernity, or was the society changed and reachable all along? We'll see what happens in the coming years.

In many ways the Siege of Mecca is the story of unintended consequences: of leaders tolerating (and even supported) extremists who ended up turning on their masters. Is there a comparable situation today that worries you?

YT: Well, history is full of unintended consequences. Did Putin expect Ukraine to harden as a nation-state and decisively turn toward the West as a result of his [invasion of the country] in 2014? My guess is no: he expected it to crumble.

On the question of jihadists, I think countries have learned since 2001 and since the rise of Islamic State that extremist proxies are dangerous. How long will that lesson hold?

Time will tell.