Speaker discusses technology giants’ influence on politics

Eilish O'Sullivan

Institutions such as Facebook and Google harm democracy and should be broken up, writer Matt Stoller said during a discussion on how technology influences politics on Tuesday afternoon. The event was hosted by the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

“These institutions are learning everything they can about you and using that information to manipulate and control you and your community,” Stoller said. 

Stoller said technology giants, such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and Amazon, have leverage when it comes to influencing policy and public opinion. For example, city mayors were offering incentives for Amazon to build its new headquarters in their cities.

“This is a big, complicated story, and no one has all the pieces,” Stoller said. “I think the best way to understand (media giants) is to understand the power that they yield.”

Stoller is a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, which works to protect liberty and democracy from extreme concentrations of private power. Stoller has written for The New York Times, Vice and Politico, and is currently writing a book on the history of monopoly power in 20th century. 

Russian organizers promoted rallies and counter-rallies on Facebook centered around the 2016 presidential elections, Stoller said. 

“Their intent was not to swing elections but to sew division,” Stoller said. “Democracy is now vulnerable to the power of a few bad actors.”

Addison Astrof, public affairs graduate student, said the Facebook-Russia controversy shows how powerful Facebook and Google are.

“I am here for two huge things I am complicit in but don’t completely understand: Facebook and Google,” Astrof said. “I think there is too much ignorance, people are saying this is bad, this is bad, but we don’t really know how to solve it.”

Errol Olson, a member of UT’s Other Lifelong Learning Institute, a learning group for senior adults, said he came to the event because he is an active user of Facebook. 

“It was a mistake for Facebook to (sell advertisements to) Russia,” Olson said. “But Facebook is a tool, and it has a reason to be here.” 

Stoller said in order to take on these institutions, people need to recognize them as political and have a political response.

“I think people are going to continue to vote for change, and I think they are going to get it,” Stoller said. “Hopefully it will be the right kind of change.”