Following the successes of right-wing political campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic in the past year, attention has been turned to Google’s role. Propaganda has always played a pivotal role in politics, and this is especially true of far-right organisations. Google has been accused of allowing political parties to manipulate search results in their favour, and some groups believe that Google should do something about it.
According to a report in The Guardian, right-wing hate groups are “dominating and controlling” search results concerning Muslims, Jews, Hitler and women, which means that people who are looking for information and advice on these topics are reading politically motivated pieces, rather than impartial advice.
Academics want Google to put a stop to this, and rightly so, but it does raise the question – why are right-wing groups so much better at digital propaganda than liberal groups? More importantly, in terms of SEO, should Google be responsible for delivering a more balanced political view, or should it help alternative groups compete better in search?
Earlier this week, Google did take action by removing some of the problematic auto-complete suggestions from its search engine.
“Compelling” Evidence of Manipulation
Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist and the author of Weapons of Math Destruction, believes if Google does not act it should be considered a “co-conspirator” with the right-wing propaganda machine. “This is the end for Google pretending to be a neutral platform,” she said. “It clearly has a terrible problem here and it has to own and acknowledge that.
“It simply can’t go on pretending that it has no editorial responsibilities when it is delivering these kinds of results. It is simply not defensible for it go on claiming ‘plausible deniability’. It has clearly become a conduit for right-wing hate sites and it must urgently take action.”
9/10 Sites Are Hate Sites
An Observer article highlighted that a search for “are jews” offered a suggestion “are jews evil”, and that 9 of the for 10 organic listings, i.e. the all-important page one results, were websites run by right-wing antisemitic hate groups.
Google has always said it will not interfere with search results so long as webmasters are not breaching Google’s own webmaster quality guidelines. As soon as Google starts to adjust the results to appeal to the concerns of one group, it will be expected to do the same for others, and before long religious groups, businesses, schools, restaurants and even SEO agencies will be sending requests to Google to improve its results by position them higher, all for the common good of the people!
How Can Liberal Groups Win?
The issue of manipulating search results is certainly a major dilemma for liberal groups. Right-wing propaganda uses fake news with a very negative slant, because this type of news creates an emotive response in readers which makes it more shareable. It is hard for a balanced opinion piece to compete with this. In a way it is similar to the negative review problem that retailers had a decade ago – generally, people do not leave positive reviews about products, but as soon as something does not meet their expectations, they complain.
The result is that most reviews were negative, and this resulted in an unfairly negative impression of what was often a perfectly OK product. The solution was to encourage positive reviews by proactively contacting customers and asking them to leave a good review. Amazon was the first company to have success with this, and it is largely why Amazon grew in popularity so quickly.
The solution for political groups it to mobilise their voters on social media and, more importantly for Google search, on websites, so that when fence sitters and young, impressionable children search for political topics they are greeted with a broader and more balanced set of results.
SEO is both the problem and the solution. The question is, who is going to take up the challenge of building a fairer and more liberal Internet?