posted by Frank Pasquale
As the midterms approach, yet another tiresome tactic is polluting the information ecosystem: the manipulation of search engine results to paint an unflattering picture of political opponents. Generally called “Googlebombing,” I think this development is only good for one reason: it will call people’s attention to the politics of search engines as all-purpose information finders.
Search engines can suppress controversy, and at first glance the tactics of the “Google Bombers” may seem an admirable effort to bring salience to oft-overlooked stories:
If things go as planned for liberal bloggers in the next few weeks, searching Google for “Jon Kyl,” the Republican senator from Arizona now running for re-election, will produce high among the returns a link to an April 13 article from The Phoenix New Times, an alternative weekly. Mr. Kyl “has spent his time in Washington kowtowing to the Bush administration and the radical right,” the article suggests, “very often to the detriment of Arizonans.”
But such efforts ignore the value of organic search results untainted by the classic forces of power and profit. I don’t mind if paid results are determined by who has the most money or best way to manipulate the system, but organic results at a general purpose search engine are held out to be an accurate account of what is the case. A search for Jon Kyl should, ideally, produce among the highly ranked organic results some relatively balanced portrayals that give voters a good sense of what he stands for. It is deeply troubling to think that a cabal of his opponents (or supporters) could crowd such results off the top pages in order to advance their agenda. The manipulators also risk provoking search engines into downranking political sites, or at least those heavily interlinked ones which (look like they) are trying to artificially affect the results.
The groups profiled in the article should also know that they can easily be outmatched in the production of digital astroturf. Yet one of their ringleaders sanguinely “hopes[more] political campaigns would take up the tactic, which he called ‘search engine optimization,’ as a standard part of their arsenal.” I admit that search engine optimization is a very complex topic, but it often boils down to the commodification of salience: if you give enough money to the SEO, they try to get you ranked high in response to certain queries. Given the already overwhelming influence of the “dollar primary,” the last thing we need to do is to extend that dynamic into the world of online politics.
PS: The speakers at this panel had some interesting insights on the topic…more on that later. I can already sense some people will think I’m mistaking Google for Wikipedia. But one can spot an unhealthy dynamic without necessarily committing to a particular way of stopping it. I suppose my biggest beef here is with the sense that an “arms race” of google-bombing is inevitable/desirable.