It is not just folks on the left who are worried about what kind of influence big technology companies like Facebook and Google might be having on electoral politics.
There is also a growing mistrust on the right about the algorithms those companies employ, and it was on display Thursday at a venue that's worlds away from Silicon Valley — Andrea’s Italian Restaurant in Metairie.
That’s where Breitbart News, the controversial right-wing news and opinion outlet that championed Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2016, decided to hold its first town hall meeting on the subject of big tech, titled “Masters of the Universe.”
Up for discussion was a topic that is animating debate across the ideological spectrum: whether to rein in the relatively few companies that regulate so much of what happens on the internet.
“Free speech in this day and age is something that is being redefined constantly and is being controlled by a handful of big tech oligarchs,” said Alexander Marlow, Breitbart’s editor-in-chief.
“They’ve accumulated so much power and so much influence at such a drastic rate that it goes far beyond our ability to regulate or even beyond our ability to have a conversation about what they’re doing.”
Marlow, who served as moderator, was joined by author and provocateur Ann Coulter, Breitbart journalist Peter Schweizer and psychologist and researcher Robert Epstein.
They spoke in front of a standing-room-only crowd that was enthusiastically receptive. A woman in the front row at one point was asked to stand up and show off her T-shirt, which read “Facebook thinks I’m stupid” on one side and “Google knows where I am” on the other.
There were red “Make America Great Again” hats and a man dressed up as Uncle Sam. Guests mingled beforehand over glasses of wine and plates of Italian food.
The event, staged on obviously friendly territory, drew only a few protesters outside. They held up a pair of signs, one reading, “Breitbart is Nazis.”
If the left today is worried about the spread of hateful rhetoric and manufactured news on platforms like Facebook, the speakers Thursday gave voice to the opposite anxiety — that in cracking down on those alleged abuses, left-leaning executives at the big tech companies will start to silence conservative voices in the name of wiping out “fake news.”
Coulter argued the internet is the only part of mainstream life that liberals don’t control, and that it has become a target for just that reason.
“They have all the networks, they have all the newspapers, they have all the schools, they have all the universities, they’re teaching preschoolers white privilege,” she said. “The internet, oh my gosh, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to conservatives. So that is what they need to go after and shut it down.”
Coulter acknowledged that she’s a little “ticked off” with President Trump at the moment — “We may never get a wall” — but she hailed the way he has used the term “fake news” as a bludgeon against the media.
“The old institutions of news communication are acting like the internet doesn’t exist,” Coulter said, accusing media outlets of downplaying the recent shooting at YouTube headquarters in California because the perpetrator turned out to be an Iranian immigrant.
“Basically all the mainstream media is ... is like a notice: ‘There’s been a shooting at YouTube,’ ” Coulter said. “And then you go on the internet to find out what happened.”
It would be all the more alarming then, Coulter and her fellow panelists agreed, if online sources of information might also start to tilt left.
Epstein, the former editor of Psychology Today and a longtime critic of Google, described how his research suggests that the company could, if it wanted, shift voting preferences by as much as 10 percent, simply by tweaking the algorithms that dish up search results.
“The more information these companies have about us, the more easily they can manipulate us — shift our opinions, our thinking, our attitudes, our beliefs, our purchases and our votes,” Epstein said.