Following the YouTube Shooting, Google Has the Power to Change the US Gun Debate - If It Chooses To

By James O Malley on at

On Tuesday afternoon in California, it happened again. America suffered yet another mass shooting. This time, the victims were at YouTube’s headquarters - at the time of writing, three people were injured - and one is still in critical condition in hospital.

While it is still early days, we now know some of the major facts about this story. And unlike other mass shootings, which have become grimly routine in the United States, I think the impact of this shooting could potentially have a more tangible impact on the US gun debate, which seems utterly bewildering to us here in Britain. All it needs is for Google to take the initiative.

What makes this shooting different is the very fact that it took place at YouTube, which is owned by Google, one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world. What is going to be interesting to watch in the days and weeks that follow is whether company decides to use its power in response.

Following the Parkland school shooting in Florida (which only happened six weeks ago), thanks to the inspiring efforts of the high school kids themselves, guns have remained towards the top of the US news agenda. On March 24th - less than two weeks ago - hundreds of thousands of Americans marched nationwide in support of tighter gun controls. Of course, given Donald Trump, the Republican congress and the influence of the National Rifle Association, whether anything can actually be done to end the insanity remains unknown.

But now Google has skin in the game. Imagine if CEO Sundar Pichai decided to add pro-gun control messaging to the Google Homepage - or if every pre-roll advert on a YouTube video was about gun control, for a day. Imagine how many people that could reach. Imagine if Google used its reach for a sustained campaign of anti-gun messaging. Perhaps, just perhaps, it could nudge the needle on public opinion just enough for Congress to pass something.

Would Google do this? Perhaps not: big companies are desperate not to upset customers en masse, and such actions could risk the wrath of conservative Americans, or even its shareholders. But this is where Google’s unparalleled market power works to its advantage. What are pissed off users going to do? Use Bing?

Even if we assume executives are uncaring automatons who don’t care about humans and only look at the bottom line on spreadsheets, Google using its power in this way might make sense. Why? Google’s staff are going to be mostly young, mostly affluent coders who live in San Francisco and other major metropolises.

In other words, the programmers, data-scientists and server admins that keep Google ticking are going to be some of the people most vociferously in favour of gun control. If Google wants to retain the talent it uses to stay on top, it may feel as though it has to do something.

Even the executive suite might be sympathetic: sure, they might want lower corporate taxes, but my bet is that as they drive home at night in their Teslas to their solar-powered Silicon Valley mansions, they’re more likely to be listening to NPR and the Hamilton soundtrack than asking the Google Assistant to schedule in a hunting trip for the weekend.

So now might be the time to watch Google: If the will is there, it could make a big impact on America’s gun control debate.

Or then again... perhaps the company will do nothing and the gun debate will remain as paralysed as ever?