A history of American lynchings


A soil collection project is commemorating the forgotten victims of lynching and helping to tell their stories.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]


Alabama, United States – It’s a sunny day in early May, in Thorsby, a small town in rural Alabama.

As we make our way down Peachtree Drive, the houses begin to give way to trailers as the dusty road turns into a dirt track.

It leads to a lake, trees lining its banks.

This is where John B Smith, a 73-year-old civil rights activist from Atlanta, Fabian Medea, my South African husband, and I get out of the car.

We take in our surroundings. The serenity of this place – rippling water, rustling leaves and a clear blue sky – belies its ugly past.

On June 4, 1895, a young man by the name of Jim Powell was lynched here.

It must have been hot then, too, one of those sweltering summer evenings, when Powell, an African American farmhand, allegedly entered the room of 15-year-old Mary Bussey. According to accounts, she screamed and he ran. 

Some hours later, his lifeless, badly beaten body dangled from a tree at this lake.

John is on his knees, digging vigorously with a small trowel.

“We recognise that you have lived, Jim Powell, and we feel your pain,” he says, before depositing some earth into a large glass jar with Jim’s name on it and the date and place where he died.

“The world now knows that you lived,” says John, pausing to look across the lake.

READ MORE: KKK members leave Klan after befriending black musician

John is participating in the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Soil Collection Project.

‘Drenched in their blood’

Earlier that day, John, Fabian and I are at the EJI’s office, in a former warehouse where slaves were kept before being sold at a nearby market, in downtown Montgomery.

Old people with walking sticks, teenagers with headphones on, people of all ages and races, are filing through the doors into the main presentation room.

The EJI was founded by Bryan Stevenson in 1994 to represent people on death row, but has since broadened its focus to include other issues pertaining to racial justice.

Stevenson thanks the 100 or so people who have gathered and begins his address.

“Lynching was racial terrorism. It is not true that 9/11 was the first domestic instance of terrorism. African Americans who lived through lynchings, bombings and persecution were terrorised on American soil,” he says.

The EJI started its soil collection initiative in 2015, as a symbolic commemoration of victims of lynching, Stevenson explains.

“Victims of lynchings were not recognised and not remembered. But the Earth is drenched in their blood,” he declares.

‘I am here’ 

Then Stevenson speaks about a woman he met while defending Walter McMillian, a black man who was wrongfully accused and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman in Monroeville in 1989. After a protracted legal battle, McMillian was exonerated in 1993.

He describes how an elderly lady, Mrs Williams, had walked towards the metal detectors at the entrance to the courtroom and how she had retreated after spotting the sniffer dogs checking the bags of those entering.

The next day, she returned. Muttering to herself, “I ain’t afraid of no dog,” she walked through the detectors and past the dogs.

“Then she said to me: ‘I am here’,” Stevenson recalls. “I said I was so happy to see her back in the courtroom, so I welcomed her and I returned to my papers.”

“When McMillian was led into the courtroom, I heard Mrs Williams’ voice again. ‘You didn’t hear me, I said I am here’, she proclaimed in a loud voice. After the judge came in, Mrs Williams didn’t sit down, like everyone else. She again reiterated her mantra, ‘I am here.'”

In Just Mercy, his 2013 bestseller about racial justice in the United States, Stevenson writes about the moment he understood what Mrs Williams was trying to say. “I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I’m here. I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness,” he wrote.

This notion of “being here” and bearing witness is central to the EJI’s racial justice work, and to its Soil Collection Project in particular.

“This is what you will be doing today,” Stevenson tells the crowd. “You will say ‘I am here’, you will bear witness.”

And with that, the EJI staff hand out leaflets with information about those victims we will be focusing on today, directions to the lynching sites, trowels and glass jars.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Fleeing Mississippi

As we drive to Thorsby, with our jar on the back seat of the car, John begins to share some of his earliest memories.

“My parents were sharecroppers in Mississippi,” he says.

Sharecroppers had to pay rent to their landlords by giving them a share of the crops. This tied them to the land and often left them unable to harvest enough food to feed their families. But John’s parents wanted to escape the extreme poverty sharecropping had trapped them in. So, they fled.

“I was about four years old and I remember that we had to flee when there wasn’t a full moon, because otherwise the night watch would catch and return us to the farmer,” John recalls. And that could lead to a lynching.

After he finished high school, John joined the army and served in Vietnam.

Upon returning home, he joined the Invaders, a Black Power group that was organising on behalf of the African American population in Memphis.

In 1968, he met Martin Luther King Jr, when he became involved in the sanitation strikes by black waste collectors in Memphis.

John explains how his journey to the site where Jim Powell was lynched is intimately linked to his own experiences of racial subordination, exclusion and hate.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

4,075 lynchings

Efforts to document the scale of lynchings in the American South started in 1882 when the Chicago Tribune published its annual list of African Americans who had been lynched.

Shortly after its inception in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began publishing lynchings statistics.

The Tuskegee Institute also kept track of lynchings and began releasing a list in 1912.

In 1995, sociologists Stewart Tolnay and EM Beck published a study, A festival of violence, which collated and, in some instances, corrected these earlier efforts.

The EJI’s February 2015 report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, is one of the most comprehensive attempts to document the scale of these murders. They found archival evidence of 4,075 lynchings that took place in the South between 1877 and 1950.

The four-year investigation saw EJI researchers and lawyers scour archives, newspapers and court records for evidence of lynchings. They also interviewed local historians and the descendants of victims. 

As in Jim Powell’s case, the evidence was often minimal.

‘A posse gave chase’

On June 6, 1895, the Louisiana newspaper Times-Democrat reported: “Jim Powell went the way of all violators of the persons of white women … Ms Bussey was awakened from sleep by the presence of the negro, Powell, in her room. The negro having crawled into her room through an open window.”

The New Orleans-based Times-Picayune reported: “Her father ran in from another room, but in doing so stumbled over a sewing machine and fell, giving the negro time to escape. A posse was immediately organised and gave chase.”

The Constitution, a Birmingham newspaper, reported that “a posse was at once formed and pursuit was begun. The negro was overtaken … 15 miles from the scene of the attempted assault. The men looked like they were determined and the negro was in a badly frightened condition.”

According to the newspapers, Powell was caught and returned to Mary Bussey, who identified him. “The mob then marched to Clinton, the county site, ostensibly to jail the negro. This morning his dead body was found hanging to a tree,” the Times-Democrat read.

Beck has studied and documented lynchings in the south for 30 years. In his inventory, Jim’s lynching is listed as “ambiguous” as he found two newspaper articles on a convicted criminal called Oliver Jackson, who entered the room of a Mary Bussey around the same time.

According to the Atlanta Constitution newspaper on June 7, 1895: “When the negro was captured and taken before the girl, she stated that he had not attempted any assault and so the captors decided to turn the culprit over to the sheriff.”

But five other newspapers reported sightings of Jim’s dead body dangling from a tree.

How to define lynching

These discrepancies point to the inherent difficulties in researching lynchings, explains EJI researcher and lawyer Jennifer Rae Taylor.

“Part of the challenge of doing this research is that we are trying to document events that occurred many years ago, when standards of reporting and verification were different than they are now, and communication was more difficult across distances, and many publications and individuals did not have much interest in collecting accurate information about lynchings,” she says.

A further complicating factor is that the definition of what constitutes a lynching can vary. According to Beck the definition developed by the NAACP is commonly used. This is that: “(1) there must be evidence that a person was killed; (2) the person must have met death illegally; (3) a group of three or more persons must have participated in the killings; and (4) the group must have acted under the pretext of protecting justice or tradition.”

But in their investigation, the EJI refined that definition. “We distinguish ‘racial terror lynchings’ – the subject of this report – from hangings and mob violence that followed some criminal trial process or that were committed against non-minorities without the threat of terror. “Racial terror lynchings” are “directed at racial minorities who were being threatened and menaced in multiple ways,” its report reads.

“The vast majority were black men murdered by white mobs,” explains Beck. “But there were a significant number of whites lynched – which EJI doesn’t count – by white mobs and a trivial number of whites lynched by black mobs, and a smaller number of blacks lynched by black mobs.”

Beck is one of only a few academics attempting to document lynchings in the US. This paucity in academic interest, he says, is a result of the shame attached to it for many white academics. It is the same shame that Beck felt when his father confessed on his deathbed that Beck’s grandfather had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

“Many white people did not and do not want to know what kind of atrocities were committed against black people, sometimes literally in their back yard,” he says.

Taylor thinks the actual number of racial terror lynchings that took place in the South is probably much higher.

“We definitely believe that there are countless victims of racial terror lynching whose deaths never resulted in a newspaper article, whose fates were only remembered through oral history and community memory, many of which have since faded,” she says.

“We are committed to continuing to refine and amend our list, but we believe it will always represent a significant undercount to the many lives lost and many, many more lives and communities impacted by racial terror lynching.”

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

A memorial to the victims of lynching

The EJI has so far organised three soil collection events, in which approximately 300 people have participated. 

But its work on the legacy of lynchings goes beyond collecting soil.

The organisation purchased 2.5 hectares of land in Montgomery in 2015, where it intends to build a national monument to commemorate the victims of lynchings.

Stevenson has raised several million dollars of the total estimated cost of $20 million to build the monument, which is scheduled to open in 2017 and was designed by the Boston-based MASS Design Group.

The collected soil will be deposited in the main feature: rows and rows of columns, some built from the ground up, others suspended, hanging in the air, evoking the victims of lynchings, who were often hung from a tree. The names of the forgotten victims will be engraved on the columns.

The EJI intends to erect identical columns in a field next to the memorial, one for each county where lynchings took place. The organisation hopes that local authorities will collect their column and turn it into their own memorial to the people who were lynched in their county.

Amnesia in a post-genocidal society

But it remains to be seen how well different counties will respond to this invitation. In many, the remnants of a racist past remain tangible.

Alabama is a case in point.

Confederate Memorial Day, a public holiday marked in Alabama on April 25, brought the county’s racial tensions to the fore. People dressed in Civil War-era outfits held a ceremony at the state capital in Montgomery to commemorate the Confederate soldiers who died – defending slavery – during the Civil War. The Confederate flag fluttered in the spring breeze. Black Lives Matter and Black Panther activists also gathered to protest against the celebration. The police intervened and a tense standoff ensued. Bulletproof vests were distributed among both groups.

Stevenson reflects on this in an interview in the EJI’s office. “The Germans built a monument in Berlin to commemorate the people who perished in the Holocaust and to remind everyone: never again,” he says. “But in the south of the US, the history of racial terror is not acknowledged. Here, we celebrate Confederate Memorial Day every year. Imagine if the Germans would commemorate the Nazis? That would be absurd. We are a post-genocidal society without any recognition for the atrocities of the past.”

That amnesia, he says, enables the perpetuation of abuse. The states where the highest number of lynchings took place currently have the highest number of executions – and those executed are disproportionately African American. According to Stevenson, it has also contributed to the mass incarceration of black men. While African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, more than a million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US are black. According to a Washington Post online database that tracks police killings, a black man in the US is seven times more likely to be killed than a white man.

Extrajudicial lynchings have simply been replaced by legal mechanisms, Stevenson postulates.

A public spectacle

Jim’s jar is filling up. John pats the light brown earth. Barely audible, he mumbles: “Which tree did they hang him from?”

I scan the horizon, assessing each tree for its age and sturdiness.

“It must be that one,” John concludes, pointing to a gnarled old oak tree. All of the trees suddenly look ominous.

Had they gouged out his eyes, I wonder. Did they chop off a finger and sell it as a souvenir? Did his family hear of what was happening to him and attempt to save him or had they already fled north, among the six million African Americans who did so during the Great Migration?

According to Beck, the public spectacle lynchings where picnicking families bought chopped off fingers, were relatively scarce. “This happened in about 10 percent of the lynchings I documented,” he says.

The brown sand suddenly looks bloody. I shiver. As an atheist on most days and an agnostic on others, I feel an unusual but desperate urge to put Jim’s soul to rest.

Protecting white women’s ‘honour’

The victims of lynchings were often black men who had been accused of raping a white woman. But, as African American journalist and activist Ida B Wells pointed out in her 1892 book Southern Horrors, Lynch Laws in All its Phases, addressing a white woman in a way deemed to be insufficiently respectful or failing to step off the pavement as a white woman approached could also lead to a lynching.

“The dark and bloody record of the south shows 728 Afro-Americans lynched during the past eight years,” she wrote in 1892. One-third of those victims had been charged with – but not convicted of – rape.

Merely walking into a room where a white woman was present could result in death. The EJI references the case of Keith Bowen in their report, a black man who in 1889 in Aberdeen, Mississippi, entered a room where three white women were seated.

“Though no further allegation was made against him, Mr Bowen was lynched by the entire white neighbourhood for his ‘offense’,” the report states.

“The idea of protecting a white woman’s honour stems from the notion of white supremacy,” Beck explains. “Black people were classified as an inferior species and having sexual relations with them would be an aberration of nature.”

The anger generated by the idea of black men and white women having sexual relationships ran deep. When Wells wrote an editorial about the myth of black-on-white sexual violence, pointing out that some relationships were consensual, her office in Memphis was burned to the ground.

White men, on the other hand, were at liberty to have sexual relationships – consensual or otherwise – with black women. 

“The white man is free to seduce all the coloured girls he can,” Wells wrote.

OPINION: Now and then, who to blame?

Government indifference

The federal government ignored the problem, failing to enforce anti-lynching laws such as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871. 

“Efforts to define lynching as a federal crime were stopped by people in Congress from the South. Local governments also did close to nothing. Very few indictments or prosecutions took place,” Beck explains.

The Colfax massacre provides a stark example of this indifference. White Democrats in Colfax won a local election that was widely perceived to be fraudulent by black Republicans. When the Republicans staged a peaceful protest at the court, a white militia retaliated by slaughtering 150 African Americans in the worst racial violence recorded during the Reconstruction Era.

Charges were brought under the Enforcement Act and several white men were arrested, but they were subsequently either acquitted or the jurors in their cases failed to reach a verdict.

In his 1906 State of the Union speech, President Theodore Roosevelt appeared to offer implicit approval for lynchings when he said: “The greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration, especially by black men, of the hideous crime of rape – the most abominable in all the category of crimes, even worse than murder.”

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Anti-miscegenation laws

I look at my husband who has taken the trowel from John. Jim’s jar is nearly full. He catches my eye and smiles. I think about how we met – in South Africa – where our relationship would once have been illegal. The 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act outlawed interracial marriages, while the 1957 Immorality Act banned interracial sexual relations, leading to the establishment of a special division of the police force tasked with peeking into people’s bedrooms. If caught in the act, a seven-year prison sentence could be imposed on both parties. 

In the US, European settlers introduced anti-miscegenation laws in the early 17th century.

According to Rachel F Moran, a law professor at UCLA and author of the book Interracial Intimacy, the Regulation of Race and Romance, early anti-miscegenation laws only punished the white partner.

“In Maryland, ‘freeborne English women’ who married ‘negro slaves’ had to serve their husbands’ master during their husbands’ lifetimes,” she explains, referencing the case of Nell Butler, or Irish Nell, an indentured white woman who married a slave called Charles Butler and subsequently spent the rest of her life as a slave. Their children were also born into slavery.

Later, however, the punishments were made equivalent. 

Charles Robinson is a history professor at the University of Arkansas and author of the book Forsaking All Others: A True Story of Interracial Sex and Revenge in the 1880s South. It tells the story of Isaac Bankston, a white man, and Missouri Bradford, an African American woman, who married in 1883 and were prosecuted under anti-miscegenation laws in 1884. During the trial, he successfully argued that his great grandfather was half Creek Indian and so the anti-miscegenation law did not apply to him. He later died in a fight with one of the lawyers who had prosecuted him.

It took several more decades to end the ban on interracial relationships. In 1958, a mixed race couple named Loving was arrested and convicted in Virginia under the Racial Integrity Act, one of the many anti-miscegenation laws that 17 states throughout the South enforced. The Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in 1967 that these laws were unconstitutional.

It is unclear exactly how many people had been prosecuted under them by then. “The state by state nature of the enforcement greatly complicates any such computation,” explains Robinson.

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The same inhumanity

“You can’t stop the idea that people want to be together. Or, in Powell’s case, that people are just allowed to talk, allowed to sit down in the same room,” Fabian says as he continues to dig through the pebbles and sand. “They were so afraid of the idea that they would sit down and talk and realise, ‘Oh my God, we are actually the same, there is no difference between us, the difference I was told about was a lie’.”

John walks back to the car with Jim’s jar. “He is one of us,” he says. “The inhumanity that led to his death, still exists, to this day.”

We drive in silence for a while, mulling over John’s statement on the unfinished state of race relations in the 21st century.

Then, Fabian breaks the silence. “The only way we can truly evolve as a species is to acknowledge our wrongdoings, to acknowledge the horror that we have done to each other. You can’t really ever know who you are; you can’t really ever heal if you don’t acknowledge your past. If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’ll go,” he says.

The three of us return Jim Powell’s jar to the EJI’s office, where it is placed on a shelf next to the jars of other victims of lynching. 

The EJI’s office is a testament to the treatment of African Americans throughout history. Framed pictures of sharecroppers, the Lovings, “whites only “or “coloureds only” signs and images of the mass incarceration of African Americans line the walls. They are a reminder that racial oppression is not a thing of the distant past.

Returning to Ellisville, Mississippi

One-hundred-and-seven-year-old Mamie Kirkland, who was awarded the Champion of Justice Award at the EJI’s annual benefit in New York in April last year, is a living testament to that past.

As she received her award, she recalled the events that had uprooted her life a century earlier, when she was a seven-year-old girl in 1916 in Ellisville, Mississippi.

Her father came home and instructed her mother to pack their bags and get the children ready, she recalled. A crowd had gathered, calling for him and his best friend, Mr Hartfield, to be lynched. 

Her father left immediately, her mother ushered her five children onto a train the next morning. The family made it to East St Louis, Illinois.

But Mr Hartfield, her father’s friend, decided to return to Ellisville to be with his white girlfriend. The mob made good on their threat: shooting, hanging and burning him.

“He could have been my father,” said Mamie.

“I didn’t even want to see Ellisville, Mississippi on a map,” she added.

But the EJI’s lynchings report changed her mind. When her son read about the lynching of Mr Hartfield in it, he contacted the EJI. Then, he convinced his mother to return to Ellisville.

So, last year, on the spot where Mr Hartfield had been hanged from a gum tree, Mamie, several of her relatives and EJI lawyer Jennifer Rae Taylor held hands and prayed together.

Source: Al Jazeera News

The New Mind Control. “Subliminal Stimulation”, Controlling People without Their Knowledge

The internet has spawned subtle forms of influence that can flip elections and manipulate everything we say, think and do

Over the past century, more than a few great writers have expressed concern about humanity’s future. In The Iron Heel(1908), the American writer Jack London pictured a world in which a handful of wealthy corporate titans – the ‘oligarchs’ – kept the masses at bay with a brutal combination of rewards and punishments. Much of humanity lived in virtual slavery, while the fortunate ones were bought off with decent wages that allowed them to live comfortably – but without any real control over their lives.

In We (1924), the brilliant Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, anticipating the excesses of the emerging Soviet Union, envisioned a world in which people were kept in check through pervasive monitoring. The walls of their homes were made of clear glass, so everything they did could be observed. They were allowed to lower their shades an hour a day to have sex, but both the rendezvous time and the lover had to be registered first with the state.

In Brave New World (1932), the British author Aldous Huxley pictured a near-perfect society in which unhappiness and aggression had been engineered out of humanity through a combination of genetic engineering and psychological conditioning. And in the much darker novel 1984 (1949), Huxley’s compatriot George Orwell described a society in which thought itself was controlled; in Orwell’s world, children were taught to use a simplified form of English called Newspeak in order to assure that they could never express ideas that were dangerous to society.

These are all fictional tales, to be sure, and in each the leaders who held the power used conspicuous forms of control that at least a few people actively resisted and occasionally overcame. But in the non-fiction bestseller The Hidden Persuaders (1957) – recently released in a 50th-anniversary edition – the American journalist Vance Packard described a ‘strange and rather exotic’ type of influence that was rapidly emerging in the United States and that was, in a way, more threatening than the fictional types of control pictured in the novels. According to Packard, US corporate executives and politicians were beginning to use subtle and, in many cases, completely undetectable methods to change people’s thinking, emotions and behaviour based on insights from psychiatry and the social sciences.

Most of us have heard of at least one of these methods: subliminal stimulation, or what Packard called ‘subthreshold effects’ – the presentation of short messages that tell us what to do but that are flashed so briefly we aren’t aware we have seen them. In 1958, propelled by public concern about a theatre in New Jersey that had supposedly hidden messages in a movie to increase ice cream sales, the National Association of Broadcasters – the association that set standards for US television – amended its code to prohibit the use of subliminal messages in broadcasting. In 1974, the Federal Communications Commission opined that the use of such messages was ‘contrary to the public interest’. Legislation to prohibit subliminal messaging was also introduced in the US Congress but never enacted. Both the UK and Australia have strict laws prohibiting it.

Subliminal stimulation is probably still in wide use in the US – it’s hard to detect, after all, and no one is keeping track of it – but it’s probably not worth worrying about. Research suggests that it has only a small impact, and that it mainly influences people who are already motivated to follow its dictates; subliminal directives to drink affect people only if they’re already thirsty.

Packard had uncovered a much bigger problem, however – namely that powerful corporations were constantly looking for, and in many cases already applying, a wide variety of techniques for controlling people without their knowledge. He described a kind of cabal in which marketers worked closely with social scientists to determine, among other things, how to get people to buy things they didn’t need and how to condition young children to be good consumers – inclinations that were explicitly nurtured and trained in Huxley’s Brave New World. Guided by social science, marketers were quickly learning how to play upon people’s insecurities, frailties, unconscious fears, aggressive feelings and sexual desires to alter their thinking, emotions and behaviour without any awareness that they were being manipulated.

By the early 1950s, Packard said, politicians had got the message and were beginning to merchandise themselves using the same subtle forces being used to sell soap. Packard prefaced his chapter on politics with an unsettling quote from the British economist Kenneth Boulding: ‘A world of unseen dictatorship is conceivable, still using the forms of democratic government.’ Could this really happen, and, if so, how would it work?

The forces that Packard described have become more pervasive over the decades. The soothing music we all hear overhead in supermarkets causes us to walk more slowly and buy more food, whether we need it or not. Most of the vacuous thoughts and intense feelings our teenagers experience from morning till night are carefully orchestrated by highly skilled marketing professionals working in our fashion and entertainment industries. Politicians work with a wide range of consultants who test every aspect of what the politicians do in order to sway voters: clothing, intonations, facial expressions, makeup, hairstyles and speeches are all optimised, just like the packaging of a breakfast cereal.

Fortunately, all of these sources of influence operate competitively. Some of the persuaders want us to buy or believe one thing, others to buy or believe something else. It is the competitive nature of our society that keeps us, on balance, relatively free.

But what would happen if new sources of control began to emerge that had little or no competition? And what if new means of control were developed that were far more powerful – and far more invisible – than any that have existed in the past? And what if new types of control allowed a handful of people to exert enormous influence not just over the citizens of the US but over most of the people on Earth?

It might surprise you to hear this, but these things have already happened.

To understand how the new forms of mind control work, we need to start by looking at the search engine – one in particular: the biggest and best of them all, namely Google. The Google search engine is so good and so popular that the company’s name is now a commonly used verb in languages around the world. To ‘Google’ something is to look it up on the Google search engine, and that, in fact, is how most computer users worldwide get most of their information about just about everything these days. They Google it. Google has become the main gateway to virtually all knowledge, mainly because the search engine is so good at giving us exactly the information we are looking for, almost instantly and almost always in the first position of the list it shows us after we launch our search – the list of ‘search results’.

That ordered list is so good, in fact, that about 50 per cent of our clicks go to the top two items, and more than 90 per cent of our clicks go to the 10 items listed on the first page of results; few people look at other results pages, even though they often number in the thousands, which means they probably contain lots of good information. Google decides which of the billions of web pages it is going to include in our search results, and it also decides how to rank them. How it decides these things is a deep, dark secret – one of the best-kept secrets in the world, like the formula for Coca-Cola.

Because people are far more likely to read and click on higher-ranked items, companies now spend billions of dollars every year trying to trick Google’s search algorithm – the computer program that does the selecting and ranking – into boosting them another notch or two. Moving up a notch can mean the difference between success and failure for a business, and moving into the top slots can be the key to fat profits.

Late in 2012, I began to wonder whether highly ranked search results could be impacting more than consumer choices. Perhaps, I speculated, a top search result could have a small impact on people’s opinions about things. Early in 2013, with my associate Ronald E Robertson of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, California, I put this idea to a test by conducting an experiment in which 102 people from the San Diego area were randomly assigned to one of three groups. In one group, people saw search results that favoured one political candidate – that is, results that linked to web pages that made this candidate look better than his or her opponent. In a second group, people saw search rankings that favoured the opposing candidate, and in the third group – the control group – people saw a mix of rankings that favoured neither candidate. The same search results and web pages were used in each group; the only thing that differed for the three groups was the ordering of the search results.

To make our experiment realistic, we used real search results that linked to real web pages. We also used a real election – the 2010 election for the prime minister of Australia. We used a foreign election to make sure that our participants were ‘undecided’. Their lack of familiarity with the candidates assured this. Through advertisements, we also recruited an ethnically diverse group of registered voters over a wide age range in order to match key demographic characteristics of the US voting population.

All participants were first given brief descriptions of the candidates and then asked to rate them in various ways, as well as to indicate which candidate they would vote for; as you might expect, participants initially favoured neither candidate on any of the five measures we used, and the vote was evenly split in all three groups. Then the participants were given up to 15 minutes in which to conduct an online search using ‘Kadoodle’, our mock search engine, which gave them access to five pages of search results that linked to web pages. People could move freely between search results and web pages, just as we do when using Google. When participants completed their search, we asked them to rate the candidates again, and we also asked them again who they would vote for.

We predicted that the opinions and voting preferences of 2 or 3 per cent of the people in the two bias groups – the groups in which people were seeing rankings favouring one candidate – would shift toward that candidate. What we actually found was astonishing. The proportion of people favouring the search engine’s top-ranked candidate increased by 48.4 per cent, and all five of our measures shifted toward that candidate. What’s more, 75 per cent of the people in the bias groups seemed to have been completely unaware that they were viewing biased search rankings. In the control group, opinions did not shift significantly.

This seemed to be a major discovery. The shift we had produced, which we called the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (or SEME, pronounced ‘seem’), appeared to be one of the largest behavioural effects ever discovered. We did not immediately uncork the Champagne bottle, however. For one thing, we had tested only a small number of people, and they were all from the San Diego area.

Over the next year or so, we replicated our findings three more times, and the third time was with a sample of more than 2,000 people from all 50 US states. In that experiment, the shift in voting preferences was 37.1 per cent and even higher in some demographic groups – as high as 80 per cent, in fact.

We also learned in this series of experiments that by reducing the bias just slightly on the first page of search results – specifically, by including one search item that favoured the other candidate in the third or fourth position of the results – we could mask our manipulation so that few or even no people were aware that they were seeing biased rankings. We could still produce dramatic shifts in voting preferences, but we could do so invisibly.

Still no Champagne, though. Our results were strong and consistent, but our experiments all involved a foreign election – that 2010 election in Australia. Could voting preferences be shifted with real voters in the middle of a real campaign? We were skeptical. In real elections, people are bombarded with multiple sources of information, and they also know a lot about the candidates. It seemed unlikely that a single experience on a search engine would have much impact on their voting preferences.

To find out, in early 2014, we went to India just before voting began in the largest democratic election in the world – the Lok Sabha election for prime minister. The three main candidates were Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, and Narendra Modi. Making use of online subject pools and both online and print advertisements, we recruited 2,150 people from 27 of India’s 35 states and territories to participate in our experiment. To take part, they had to be registered voters who had not yet voted and who were still undecided about how they would vote.

Participants were randomly assigned to three search-engine groups, favouring, respectively, Gandhi, Kejriwal or Modi. As one might expect, familiarity levels with the candidates was high – between 7.7 and 8.5 on a scale of 10. We predicted that our manipulation would produce a very small effect, if any, but that’s not what we found. On average, we were able to shift the proportion of people favouring any given candidate by more than 20 per cent overall and more than 60 per cent in some demographic groups. Even more disturbing, 99.5 per cent of our participants showed no awareness that they were viewing biased search rankings – in other words, that they were being manipulated.

SEME’s near-invisibility is curious indeed. It means that when people – including you and me – are looking at biased search rankings, they look just fine. So if right now you Google ‘US presidential candidates’, the search results you see will probably look fairly random, even if they happen to favour one candidate. Even I have trouble detecting bias in search rankings that I know to be biased (because they were prepared by my staff). Yet our randomised, controlled experiments tell us over and over again that when higher-ranked items connect with web pages that favour one candidate, this has a dramatic impact on the opinions of undecided voters, in large part for the simple reason that people tend to click only on higher-ranked items. This is truly scary: like subliminal stimuli, SEME is a force you can’t see; but unlike subliminal stimuli, it has an enormous impact – like Casper the ghost pushing you down a flight of stairs.

We published a detailed report about our first five experiments on SEME in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in August 2015. We had indeed found something important, especially given Google’s dominance over search. Google has a near-monopoly on internet searches in the US, with 83 per cent of Americans specifying Google as the search engine they use most often, according to the Pew Research Center. So if Google favours one candidate in an election, its impact on undecided voters could easily decide the election’s outcome.

Keep in mind that we had had only one shot at our participants. What would be the impact of favouring one candidate in searches people are conducting over a period of weeks or months before an election? It would almost certainly be much larger than what we were seeing in our experiments.

Other types of influence during an election campaign are balanced by competing sources of influence – a wide variety of newspapers, radio shows and television networks, for example – but Google, for all intents and purposes, has no competition, and people trust its search results implicitly, assuming that the company’s mysterious search algorithm is entirely objective and unbiased. This high level of trust, combined with the lack of competition, puts Google in a unique position to impact elections. Even more disturbing, the search-ranking business is entirely unregulated, so Google could favour any candidate it likes without violating any laws. Some courts have even ruled that Google’s right to rank-order search results as it pleases is protected as a form of free speech.

Does the company ever favour particular candidates? In the 2012 US presidential election, Google and its top executives donated more than $800,000 to President Barack Obama and just $37,000 to his opponent, Mitt Romney. And in 2015, a team of researchers from the University of Maryland and elsewhere showed that Google’s search results routinely favoured Democratic candidates. Are Google’s search rankings really biased? An internal report issued by the US Federal Trade Commission in 2012 concluded that Google’s search rankings routinely put Google’s financial interests ahead of those of their competitors, and anti-trust actions currently under way against Google in both the European Union and India are based on similar findings.

In most countries, 90 per cent of online search is conducted on Google, which gives the company even more power to flip elections than it has in the US and, with internet penetration increasing rapidly worldwide, this power is growing. In our PNAS article, Robertson and I calculated that Google now has the power to flip upwards of 25 per cent of the national elections in the world with no one knowing this is occurring. In fact, we estimate that, with or without deliberate planning on the part of company executives, Google’s search rankings have been impacting elections for years, with growing impact each year. And because search rankings are ephemeral, they leave no paper trail, which gives the company complete deniability.

Power on this scale and with this level of invisibility is unprecedented in human history. But it turns out that our discovery about SEME was just the tip of a very large iceberg.

Recent reports suggest that the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is making heavy use of social media to try to generate support – Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and Facebook, for starters. At this writing, she has 5.4 million followers on Twitter, and her staff is tweeting several times an hour during waking hours. The Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, has 5.9 million Twitter followers and is tweeting just as frequently.

Is social media as big a threat to democracy as search rankings appear to be? Not necessarily. When new technologies are used competitively, they present no threat. Even through the platforms are new, they are generally being used the same way as billboards and television commercials have been used for decades: you put a billboard on one side of the street; I put one on the other. I might have the money to erect more billboards than you, but the process is still competitive.

What happens, though, if such technologies are misused by the companies that own them? A study by Robert M Bond, now a political science professor at Ohio State University, and others published in Nature in 2012 described an ethically questionable experiment in which, on election day in 2010, Facebook sent ‘go out and vote’ reminders to more than 60 million of its users. The reminders caused about 340,000 people to vote who otherwise would not have. Writing in the New Republic in 2014, Jonathan Zittrain, professor of international law at Harvard University, pointed out that, given the massive amount of information it has collected about its users, Facebook could easily send such messages only to people who support one particular party or candidate, and that doing so could easily flip a close election – with no one knowing that this has occurred. And because advertisements, like search rankings, are ephemeral, manipulating an election in this way would leave no paper trail.

Are there laws prohibiting Facebook from sending out ads selectively to certain users? Absolutely not; in fact, targeted advertising is how Facebook makes its money. Is Facebook currently manipulating elections in this way? No one knows, but in my view it would be foolish and possibly even improper for Facebook not to do so. Some candidates are better for a company than others, and Facebook’s executives have a fiduciary responsibility to the company’s stockholders to promote the company’s interests.

The Bond study was largely ignored, but another Facebook experiment, published in 2014 in PNAS, prompted protests around the world. In this study, for a period of a week, 689,000 Facebook users were sent news feeds that contained either an excess of positive terms, an excess of negative terms, or neither. Those in the first group subsequently used slightly more positive terms in their communications, while those in the second group used slightly more negative terms in their communications. This was said to show that people’s ‘emotional states’ could be deliberately manipulated on a massive scale by a social media company, an idea that many people found disturbing. People were also upset that a large-scale experiment on emotion had been conducted without the explicit consent of any of the participants.

Facebook’s consumer profiles are undoubtedly massive, but they pale in comparison with those maintained by Google, which is collecting information about people 24/7, using more than 60 different observation platforms – the search engine, of course, but also Google Wallet, Google Maps, Google Adwords, Google Analytics, Chrome, Google Docs, Android, YouTube, and on and on. Gmail users are generally oblivious to the fact that Google stores and analyses every email they write, even the drafts they never send – as well as all the incoming email they receive from both Gmail and non-Gmail users.

According to Google’s privacy policy – to which one assents whenever one uses a Google product, even when one has not been informed that he or she is using a Google product – Google can share the information it collects about you with almost anyone, including government agencies. But never with you. Google’s privacy is sacrosanct; yours is nonexistent.

Could Google and ‘those we work with’ (language from the privacy policy) use the information they are amassing about you for nefarious purposes – to manipulate or coerce, for example? Could inaccurate information in people’s profiles (which people have no way to correct) limit their opportunities or ruin their reputations?

Certainly, if Google set about to fix an election, it could first dip into its massive database of personal information to identify just those voters who are undecided. Then it could, day after day, send customised rankings favouring one candidate to just those people. One advantage of this approach is that it would make Google’s manipulation extremely difficult for investigators to detect.

Extreme forms of monitoring, whether by the KGB in the Soviet Union, the Stasi in East Germany, or Big Brother in 1984, are essential elements of all tyrannies, and technology is making both monitoring and the consolidation of surveillance data easier than ever. By 2020, China will have put in place the most ambitious government monitoring system ever created – a single database called the Social Credit System, in which multiple ratings and records for all of its 1.3 billion citizens are recorded for easy access by officials and bureaucrats. At a glance, they will know whether someone has plagiarised schoolwork, was tardy in paying bills, urinated in public, or blogged inappropriately online.

As Edward Snowden’s revelations made clear, we are rapidly moving toward a world in which both governments and corporations – sometimes working together – are collecting massive amounts of data about every one of us every day, with few or no laws in place that restrict how those data can be used. When you combine the data collection with the desire to control or manipulate, the possibilities are endless, but perhaps the most frightening possibility is the one expressed in Boulding’s assertion that an ‘unseen dictatorship’ was possible ‘using the forms of democratic government’.

Since Robertson and I submitted our initial report on SEME to PNAS early in 2015, we have completed a sophisticated series of experiments that have greatly enhanced our understanding of this phenomenon, and other experiments will be completed in the coming months. We have a much better sense now of why SEME is so powerful and how, to some extent, it can be suppressed.

We have also learned something very disturbing – that search engines are influencing far more than what people buy and whom they vote for. We now have evidence suggesting that on virtually all issues where people are initially undecided, search rankings are impacting almost every decision that people make. They are having an impact on the opinions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of internet users worldwide – entirely without people’s knowledge that this is occurring. This is happening with or without deliberate intervention by company officials; even so-called ‘organic’ search processes regularly generate search results that favour one point of view, and that in turn has the potential to tip the opinions of millions of people who are undecided on an issue. In one of our recent experiments, biased search results shifted people’s opinions about the value of fracking by 33.9 per cent.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that the handful of people who do show awareness that they are viewing biased search rankings shift even further in the predicted direction; simply knowing that a list is biased doesn’t necessarily protect you from SEME’s power.

Remember what the search algorithm is doing: in response to your query, it is selecting a handful of webpages from among the billions that are available, and it is ordering those webpages using secret criteria. Seconds later, the decision you make or the opinion you form – about the best toothpaste to use, whether fracking is safe, where you should go on your next vacation, who would make the best president, or whether global warming is real – is determined by that short list you are shown, even though you have no idea how the list was generated.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a consolidation of search engines has been quietly taking place, so that more people are using the dominant search engine even when they think they are not. Because Google is the best search engine, and because crawling the rapidly expanding internet has become prohibitively expensive, more and more search engines are drawing their information from the leader rather than generating it themselves. The most recent deal, revealed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in October 2015, was between Google and Yahoo! Inc.

Looking ahead to the November 2016 US presidential election, I see clear signs that Google is backing Hillary Clinton. In April 2015, Clinton hired Stephanie Hannon away from Google to be her chief technology officer and, a few months ago, Eric Schmidt, chairman of the holding company that controls Google, set up a semi-secret company – The Groundwork – for the specific purpose of putting Clinton in office. The formation of The Groundwork prompted Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, to dub Google Clinton’s ‘secret weapon’ in her quest for the US presidency.

We now estimate that Hannon’s old friends have the power to drive between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes to Clinton on election day with no one knowing that this is occurring and without leaving a paper trail. They can also help her win the nomination, of course, by influencing undecided voters during the primaries. Swing voters have always been the key to winning elections, and there has never been a more powerful, efficient or inexpensive way to sway them than SEME.

We are living in a world in which a handful of high-tech companies, sometimes working hand-in-hand with governments, are not only monitoring much of our activity, but are also invisibly controlling more and more of what we think, feel, do and say. The technology that now surrounds us is not just a harmless toy; it has also made possible undetectable and untraceable manipulations of entire populations – manipulations that have no precedent in human history and that are currently well beyond the scope of existing regulations and laws. The new hidden persuaders are bigger, bolder and badder than anything Vance Packard ever envisioned. If we choose to ignore this, we do so at our peril.

Robert Epstein is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. This article is a preview of his forthcoming book, The New Mind Control.

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