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The Meaning Of Google Vs. ‘Unplanned’

The cultural power of Internet giants, and how they use it to stigmatize dissent
Screenshot of Google result

Look at that, would you? It’s what you get when you search for the new pro-life drama Unplanned on Google. “Propaganda.” The movie is based on the real-life story of Abby Johnson, a former abortion clinic worker who became a pro-life activist after she personally witnessed an abortion.

The film’s director Chuck Konzelman testified before a Senate committee this week, and talked about how social media giants have tried to stifle the movie’s promotion. Excerpt from his testimony:

The MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] saddled us with an ‘R’ rating, which strongly discourages much of the Christian audience, and all of the Church of Latter Day Saints from seeing our film, since they have a general prohibition against seeing R-rated films. It also precluded us from using the single most effective form of motion picture advertising, paid placement of our theatrical trailer before other films in theaters, but with an ‘R’ rating, we were prohibited from advertising before anything other than R-rated films, without special permission, which we sought and were denied.

We also looked to advertise on cable television, but with exception of Fox News and CBN, we were systematically denied access to the outlets where we sought to advertise, among which were Lifetime, UPtv, Hallmark, HGTV, USA Network, Food Network, the Travel Channel, DIY [Network], and the Cooking Channel. Lifetime, which is owned by A&E Networks — told our buyers that they were refusing due to the ‘sensitive nature of the film,’ but it previously promoted an interview with Scarlett Johansson, in which she touted the benefits of Planned Parenthood.

More from the news account:

Konzelman added that when they had turned to social media, the struggle to promote the pro-life film continued.

“Once again, we found ourselves stymied,” said the director, who added that “Google Ads” had blocked the entirety of the film’s pre-release banner ads, which he noted had only consisted of an image of half a woman’s face, with a tear coming down, and the words, “what she saw changed everything.”

“I don’t think [the advertisements] were particularly offensive,” stated Konzelman, “Google cited a policy regarding abortion-related ads — just one problem — we weren’t doing abortion-related ads, we were marketing a movie.”

“It’s important to note that this prohibition was solidly in place for the entire lead-up to our theatrical release,” continued the director.

Konzelman added that it was important for them to be able to promote the film during that time period, because “much like advertising spent on a political campaign, the vast majority of dollars spent in promoting a film are spent to help build up a white-hot intensity and awareness around one particular date, but instead of election night, for films its Friday night of opening weekend.”

The director went on to talk about Twitter, which had suspended the film’s Twitter account “within hours of is theatrical debut.” Konzelman also noted that he was told the Twitter account had existed for nine months and had never been suspended, until the early morning hours on the day of the film’s debut.

Google is a private company, and it has the right to do what it wants (as is, and does, Twitter). But this is a good example of why lawmakers, and the public, should be examining the immense power companies like Google have over our lives, by virtue of the data they collect and use, and reining them in.

I’m not saying that Congress should pass a law compelling Google not to label a movie propaganda. I’m saying that the fact that Google has done this, and refused to advertise a mainstream pro-life drama, is a big red flag warning us about the cultural biases and priorities of this extremely powerful company, and their willingness to throw their weight around in blatantly unjust ways.

Again, I commend to you a book I’m reading now, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff. I’m only a few chapters in, but this description of the book on its Amazon page is really accurate:

In this masterwork of original thinking and research, Shoshana Zuboff provides startling insights into the phenomenon that she has named surveillance capitalism. The stakes could not be higher: a global architecture of behavior modification threatens human nature in the twenty-first century just as industrial capitalism disfigured the natural world in the twentieth.

Zuboff vividly brings to life the consequences as surveillance capitalism advances from Silicon Valley into every economic sector. Vast wealth and power are accumulated in ominous new “behavioral futures markets,” where predictions about our behavior are bought and sold, and the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new “means of behavioral modification.”

The threat has shifted from a totalitarian Big Brother state to a ubiquitous digital architecture: a “Big Other” operating in the interests of surveillance capital. Here is the crucible of an unprecedented form of power marked by extreme concentrations of knowledge and free from democratic oversight. Zuboff’s comprehensive and moving analysis lays bare the threats to twenty-first century society: a controlled “hive” of total connection that seduces with promises of total certainty for maximum profit–at the expense of democracy, freedom, and our human future.

With little resistance from law or society, surveillance capitalism is on the verge of dominating the social order and shaping the digital future–if we let it.

I would expect that Zuboff is on the cultural and political left, but this is not an issue that can be understood through the conventional left-right paradigm. Insofar as right-wing people assume that Google, Amazon, Facebook, and others have the right to do whatever they want to do, because the free market, they grotesquely misunderstand the threat to liberty these companies pose.

Early in the book, Zuboff warns that our familiar categories aren’t sufficient to understand this phenomenon. She talks about a house fire that came close to killing her because she didn’t grasp how bad it was. She could not imagine that her house could actually burn down, so she thought she was safe running around the bottom floor trying to save things while waiting on the fire brigade. The fire marshal pulled her out before she could be seriously hurt. This, Zuboff says, is analogous to the situation we’re all facing with the power of these companies to change the social order.

You may be pro-choice, but you should still be really concerned about what Google is doing here. What if the next thing they decide not to allow to advertise, or to label “propaganda” in its searches, is a movie or book about a cause you support? Do you really want people sitting in Silicon Valley making these choices for us all? I am strongly pro-life, but I would not want paternalistic Google to decide what is and is not “propaganda,” and I would not want Twitter to shut off Planned Parenthood’s account, or the accounts of movies supporting their pro-abortion line.

To be clear, Zuboff’s book is about a much deeper and broader phenomenon, but this controversy with Google and Twitter over this little indie movie is a symptom of a massive problem. It’s a problem that is, and is going to be, especially acute for social, political, and religious conservatives, given that the digital gatekeepers despise our kind. First they will marginalize and stigmatize us, but then they will turn on leftists and liberals who violate their code. And, having gathered so much personal data on individuals, what will these Controllers do with it when they judge certain people to be enemies of the Good?

I’m telling you, read Zuboff. Going through this book, I get the feeling that we culture warriors on both sides are like Jaguar Paw and his pursuers in the climax of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. What they see on the beach renders their own life-or-death struggle almost meaningless. It apocalyptically resets the paradigm. Here’s that scene, if you want to watch it — but be warned, it contains a massive spoiler.

UPDATE: Google just changed it. A reader from Alaska sent in this screen shot. I googled Unplanned from my laptop just now (11:15 CDT), and got the same result.



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