The fact is, we have all been in some kind of echo-chamber at some point. Some self inflicted and others, pushed upon us to manipulate our ability to react to certain situations. Today, Truthout revealed one such echo-chamber. One that is created by Google.
I know I have said this many times over the past few years, and I will say it many more times: "So Much For Don't Be Evil."
What else could we define it as, when a huge company like Google markets itself as an politically neutral, optimized search engine, when it skews every individual result based on the politics and culture of your location, the desires of your government, and the amount of cash dumped into their coffers for search results?
To me, that is absolutely evil, unethical, and immoral, because it misrepresents the services that Google pretends to offer to the public for free. And we should all know by now, that nothing in this world is free. Even Google's search results come a price, even if you don't know you are paying. Slip under the orange portal if you want to read more.
What am I talking about? Truthout ran a story yesterday about a professor at Cornell U who noticed some strange search results regarding his paper on Fracking, on the Google Search Engine. The title: How Google is Helping the Gas Lobby Support Fracking.
Dr Howarth wrote a paper on the environmental hazards of fracking and this is what occurred after that paper was published online:
Soon after the paper was released, Howarth and others noticed a disturbing phenomenon on Google. Every time Professor Howarth's name was placed into a Google search engine, the first thing that appeared was an ad from ANGA, devoted strictly to hampering the credibility of Howarth's research. The page was listed as an ad but at a quick glance, it simply looked like the top search result. As of the time of this writing, late October, the ad still displayed that way. TruthOutThe reason this caught my eye? I witnessed similar bizarre search results during the BP Gulf Gusher. I believe that this is a rather timely discussion given the indictments and fines being levied on BP and the charges against a chosen few of it's corporate, sacrificial lambs at the present.
Google has become the remote control for the world; it's the first stop, not TV," said Will Margiloff, CEO of Innovation Interactive, a unit of Denstu. "More than any other media, that messaging is requested; people are seeking BP's answers out as opposed to waiting to be told."We--myself included, all expected to see BP inhabit perhaps the top 5 spaces on any given page regarding a search on the Gulf of Mexico, Oil, BP, Corexit, along with some ads in the margins. What I saw that was totally unexpected was this:
The steep acceleration of spending indicates BP opted for "broad match" keywords, meaning many combinations of "oil" or "spill" would trigger a BP search ad. BP also bought video search ads, which directed surfers to BP videos. BP declined to comment for this story. Adage.com 2010
The Search results came out weirdly backwards. Pertinent search results that should have appeared within the top 20 returns due to content and date, instead appeared 100 pages into a search. And it took me a bit of time to figure this out. Anyone else notice that local news coverage in the Gulf of Mexico on the Gulf Gusher never appeared on search results? It was online, it should have been near the top or at the top, but instead, these results often didn't appear at all, or were so deep inside the pages of returned results, that you could spend hours digging to find them.
I had a couple of friends conduct their own searches, they indicated similar outcomes.
In order to find the information I wanted to see, I instead had to go find the individual names of of local television stations and newspapers in the Gulf of Mexico, and the go directly to their sites and search on those sites. How many Americans are going to think of that, much less accomplish that in a lunch hour or in that short period of time before work or bed if they work outside the home?
Once again, a very time consuming alternative to what was allegedly an "Optimized Search Engine".
And no one seemed to notice or care. Also missing were blog entries on many searches, that should have appeared due to content relevance and timing, but did not. I was only able to find blogs on the Gulf of Mexico, by hopping from blog to blog. I suspect this is true, because like many of the television and news stories, the accounts of what was happening in the Gulf of Mexico were not flattering to BP or the Unified Command.
Once again, these methods of search I devised were very complicated, time consuming with regards to searches of first hand accounts of residents in the Gulf, that should been more visible on a politically and corporate-neutral, "optimized" search engine.
Think about it, there are over 40 regular television stations in Louisiana alone, and all are online with their own web pages. Can anyone explain to me why, the local stories regarding the Gulf of Mexico BP Disaster would not show up on search engine results? Even 20 or 40 pages into the search results?
There are 27 news papers listed for Louisiana, not counting university papers, and about half show they have websites, why wouldn't their local coverage show up as well?
Which would be more relevant to a story? A bland news treatment of the Gusher from a state thousands of miles away, or a story from the Gulf of Mexico itself?
Now add the news agencies from Alabama, Mississippi, some parts of Texas, and Florida and you have to wonder WHY none of the search results showed the local stories that were published online at these sites in a regular search result, somewhere in the first couple of pages of results.
I searched for someone who could give me answers regarding this observation, and no one seemed to care. I care. I still care and here is why.
Imagine how meddling with the neutrality of a massive search engine like Google will effect the quality and content of news stories all over the country? Which way will the majority of corporate sponsors lean on this or that issue today? To the Left or to the Right? And how will this affect the tone and content of journalistic pieces researched using Google results or web search engines that utilize Google as part of their meta-searches?
How will this sort of meddling affect your perceptions of any given issue, regardless of your political leanings?
To me this is no different than purging the card catalog in a Public Library. The books are still there, everything you want and need is still in the library, but you have no reliable way to find those books, because the card catalog has been purged and the books have been misplaced and/or mislabeled under the Dewey Decimal System on purpose.
Sure you could eventually find them, but you have to search the WHOLE physical library first. Meanwhile the topic you are researching is getting hotter and hotter and you have no way to organize a coherent response, because you are essentially misinformed at best, by corporate punditry, or simply in the dark period.
The Truthout Story asks a question I have harped on in other forums many times:
Do Google and other companies have a responsibility to the public to consider the way their search engine can be used to advance the interests of certain industries? This method naturally empowers wealthy industries to dominate Google search results given their massive resources and vested financial interests in the way in which science is discussed in the public sphere. And the company does ultimately answer to shareholders and not to the public at large. Given this reality, what can we expect from Google and other corporate giants of the Internet world when it comes to providing valuable information that serves the public? TruthoutWhat is the point of pretending that these search engines serve the public interests if the engines owners allow corporations or even government factions to skew the results of internet searches, effectively censoring the public and the press, by silently, disallowing access to neutral search results? Explain to me what the point of pretending we have freedom of the press or freedom of expression, if relevant, authentic material is buried in favor of these misleading corporate ads?
When PR firms can subcontract individuals to bury stories that don't suit their clientele's agenda, we have a big problem. Especially when that happens in addition to money paid directly to these search engines for top rating spots. That's not a search engine, that's the yellow pages. That's a propaganda machine, it's a mouthpiece, and it shouldn't be advertised as politically neutral, or corporate-neutral.
The only people benefiting from this "Search Optimizations" are the ones who can pay for it.
I know you all thought that the battle for hearts and minds was taking place overseas, or perhaps between parties. I offer to you that there is a similar battle taking place with this war on access to information. Explain to me, how letting corporations dominate the net via misleading ads parading as blogs or news stories doesn't threaten net neutrality?
How is this not the same as the Citizen's United issue, where the more money you have, the more votes you get? Online or in the government?
How can we claim to have conducted good research, and presented the pertinent sides to any story at all, if the material "provided" for our research is already skewed before we type in the keywords?
The Howarth story has a lot of other disturbing observations you need to witness. It's not just what Google is doing to influence the public, but also how this is used to silence Scientists who are trying to stand up for a clean environment, or any green issue.
Take the elements of this story and paste it onto the Tobacco suits--how might these sort of practices altered the outcome of that? How might similar practices be altering the dialogue about Climate Change? Campaign Money? Bank Reform? Or any big issue that has afflicted the American people in the last 10 years?
It's has been clear to me that these big online entities are incapable of policing themselves, and that some regulations need to be applied that protect the privacy of the people, and their access to neutral search results.