Eric Schmidt’s Irrational Optimism

The other morning, after I read on Twitter of an especially gruesome massacre of civilians by Syrian government forces, I plugged the words “Syria” and “massacre” into Google’s search engine.

I wanted to read as much as possible about events in Syria, as quickly as possible, from a variety of legitimate news sources.

The search engine -- what Kurt Andersen describes in his new novel “True Believers” as a kind of “prosthetic cerebral cortex” -- came up with thousands of matches. But the No. 1 return was not a story from Bloomberg News or the Associated Press or the New York Times. It was an article from the website of Russia Today, a government-controlled propaganda organization known for advancing the thinking of the Kremlin.

The Russia Today headline: “Leaked: Shock footage allegedly shows Syrian family slain by rebels (GRAPHIC VIDEO).” The story that followed, which described the killing of four people, contained this line: “Sources say that opposition rebels committed the atrocity.”

Russia Today, in a natural reflection of the Russian government’s policies, has been weighting its coverage of the Syrian intifada in favor of a regime that has killed more than 10,000 of its citizens. Undoubtedly, these “sources” are Syrian government sources, and it is fair to surmise that they often lie about the actions of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship.

Propaganda, Facts

I believe I’m a fairly sophisticated consumer of Middle East news. Or, at least, I’m sophisticated enough to distinguish obvious propaganda from depictions of observable facts. But I believe that other Internet surfers, when coming upon the work of Russia Today, might not understand its politics and motivations. Which raises the obvious question: Why can’t Google do better in presenting information to the world?

Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google Inc., and one of the world’s most effective evangelists for technology-enhanced living, told me in an interview last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival that Google should “rank against” disinformation. But he suggested that isn’t a task easily accomplished. So he issued this recommendation: “You all have to be aware that searching for something doesn’t mean you have to believe it.”

Well, that settles it. The Internet-fueled rise of birtherism, Sept. 11 trutherism and the wild conspiracy theories that cripple discourse in the Middle East are containable just as soon as people understand that not everything on the Internet is true. I asked Schmidt if he could cite any evidence that American democracy is better off for having the Internet. After all, there seems to be something of a correlation between the rise of the Web and the polarization of U.S. politics, along with the mainstreaming of irrationality.

“I don’t think when we built the Internet, we thought that was the problem we were solving,” he said. “I think most people would agree that more speech is better. The clear outcome of the current situation is that more speech means constant polling, etc. There is a lack of deliberative time in our political process. And our political leaders will eventually figure out that they’re going to make better decisions if they actually take a break and spend a week thinking about them.”

This last statement seemed incredible -- or, as the laconic Schmidt himself might put it, unsupported by existing data. The idea that politicians will become more thoughtful as the velocity of information, good and bad, increases seems fanciful. So what mechanism will help politicians become more contemplative?

“Well, they actually are elected, and they can actually talk to each other,” Schmidt said.

And you have that much faith? I asked. “Yes. Things will get bad enough that eventually reason will prevail.” I pushed a bit more, and he said, “Well, you know, these problems will get themselves resolved.”

Google’s Religion

I understand that the official religion of Google is the belief that faster communication will lead to a better-informed global citizenry and the demise of top-down authoritarianism. Not even Google’s unfortunate experience in China -- where the government insisted the company follow censorship rules -- seems to make Schmidt question his company’s philosophy, although he is aware that China has so far not cooperated with Google’s vision of what the future should be.

“Our theory was that if we put up with the censorship, which we did not like, we would empower the citizens, and the citizens would revolt if this stuff was taken away from them,” Schmidt told me. This didn’t happen, of course, and Google moved its servers to Hong Kong, to the other side of the Chinese government’s so-called Great Firewall. Google’s experience, he said, was that “we were wrong.”

Only provisionally wrong, though. Technology will help people eventually overcome authoritarianism, especially when mobile devices are omnipresent, Schmidt said. They will help citizens publicize crimes against humanity, and shame their persecutors.

Again, there isn’t a great deal of data available to support this notion. I asked Schmidt about Syria, where the Assad regime seems immune to the shaming power of Google’s YouTube service, which carries videos of the government’s atrocities. “There’s always an evil person,” Schmidt said. “But that doesn’t mean everyone’s evil. Most governments, even autocratic governments, can be embarrassed.”

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has labeled Schmidt a “radical optimist” for his naive views of human nature. Certainly, radical optimism is a sound business policy for a company that seeks to change the way we gain knowledge.

But here is the main irony of Schmidt’s worldview: His belief that the Internet has given humankind a radical new ability to reason its way to truth is in itself irrational.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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