Digital publisher SourceFed is levying a pretty serious allegation at Google – namely that the search giant is consciously manipulating Google Instant search results to favor Hillary Clinton in her campaign for the Democratic nomination. You can watch their explanation video, featuring SourceFed Host/Writer Matt Lieberman, here:
It’s entirely possible that there’s manipulation of the election process via social media … however this video is in no way evidence of any conscious manipulation. Identifying that sort of pattern as an end user is extraordinarily difficult (which is the scary part) – and is certainly not achievable by a few people searching from a handful of devices in a Los Angeles office. Hopefully SourceFed relied on more than that – but thus far they’ve published none of their methodology. Other media outlets are now fact-checking SourceFed.
Here’s the problem: in order to make this claim, they would need verification from the same experiment replicated on hundreds of different computers (also browsers, devices, and time periods).
They would also need to standardize their measures, which would be nearly impossible because so many people use Google services and have individually-tailored instant search results delivered to them based on what Google knows about them through their Gmail content, YouTube comments and preferences, etc. Essentially they would need access to a random sample of hundreds (if not thousands) of users’ Google accounts to conduct searches from.
You can test this now if you’re signed into Google: search for “hillary clinton cri” and see what shows up. If Google is consciously manipulating the results, one would expect the same favorable treatment of Clinton to show up for every user (despite their individually-tailored preferences) – and yet this is not the case. My results differ:
Even if a user isn’t signed in, Google (and Yahoo, Bing, Ask, etc.) still know a great deal about the user and make recommendations based on that information. For example, they know:
- the user’s IP address (thusly location and ISP)
- what time of day it is
- the browser and version they’re using
- whether they’re connecting via desktop or mobile.
- what the user’s keystrokes were (including capitalization of proper names and how long it took to strike each key)
Even the information Google CAN’T get is a signal that Google uses to tailor searches to the user. That’s actually what we see in the SourceFed video – a Chrome browser with no user signed in:
Still with me? There’s more. Any results originally achieved are now going to be affected by the fact that SourceFed is influencing the results by encouraging people to test out their hypothesis (Observer Effect). Thousands of people are typing in “hillary clinton cri” and waiting (yet another signal to Google).
These are just SOME of the problems any researcher would need to overcome in order to detect this sort of bias as an end user.
The point SourceFed raises is legitimate – our digital media giants could be manipulating what we see for nefarious effect and we likely wouldn’t know about it until after the fact (if at all). However, what they’ve done is not evidence of such activity.
Update: After being rebutted by Google and SEO experts everywhere, SourceFed is doubling down on their lazy research and insisting they’re “comedians” so they get a pass on the requirement for rigorous research methodology in this response video. They admit to problems in their analysis, but claim they’re ‘ just asking questions, man’ – and they’ve left up the original video. What is particularly galling, however, is that they continue to promote the original [seriously-flawed] video – even as recently as today where it remains a pinned tweet on Twitter and a reshared post on Facebook mere minutes before this update was posted:
So “sorrynotsorry,” I guess. It’s kind of disturbing that SourceFed is owned by Discovery Communications and they tolerate this level of journalistic malpractice.
You know the story. Back in 2011 University of California, Davis campus police officer Lieutenant John Pike was videotaped and photographed casually pepper-spraying students peacefully protesting tuition hikes. It quickly turned into a meme:
Nevins & Associates proposed:
- Launch an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate the negative search results for UC Davis and the Chancellor through strategic modifications to existing and future content and generating original content as needed
- […] Advise and support UC Davis’ adoption of Google platforms to expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor […]
They have failed miserably as a quick search of Google Images illustrates:
(Sidebar: I’m dying to see one of the monthly reports they promised to deliver the university, measuring the progress of their efforts.)
Not only that, but they’ve made the situation vastly worse because the attempt to stifle free speech in the name of sanitizing the reputation of the Chancellor and the university has erupted into a firestorm. As I write this, the Wikipedia page for UC Davis is already in the process of being updated with the details about the attempt to scrub references to the incident:
I’m completely dumbfounded that Nevins & Associates actually claimed they could deliver this result. I’m loathe to criticize colleagues in PR/digital, but this is the kind of behavior that gives digital professionals a bad name.
They should have told UC Davis the cold truth: you can’t erase anything online – and trying to do so inevitably worsens the situation AND alerts more of the public to it. There’s actually a name for this type of situation: the Streisand Effect.
Had they proposed that they would try to MINIMIZE the impact of the wealth of content about the pepper spray incident by amplifying positive messages, that would be fine. But words like “eliminate” and “scrub” should not be in the vocabulary of anyone who works in the digital world.
I’m also agog that the (presumably) college-educated leadership of UC Davis actually thought this was possible. Moreover, that they thought a firm with such a small digital footprint itself was capable of making it happen:
If your organization faces a crisis of perception, the only path to follow are Arthur W. Page’s principles. The radically transparent era we live in has made them more relevant now than they were decades ago when he published them. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is not serving you well.
Thanks to everyone who attended the session at the 2015 WMPRSA Nonprofit Workshop. Make sure you apply to be WMPRSA’s PR4Good client. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or post them in the comments section below.
Happy Lost Day Everyone! Here’s my (oddly-popular) review of the Lost series finale from 2010. Spoiler alert, obvs.
[Update: If you haven’t seen this video, you need to check it out (I’m not the only one that feels this way).]
I was really disappointed by the Lost season finale.
From the start, Lost thrived on setting up curious questions and then answering them in a way that only posed more questions. Not only was that the theme for the show – but the entire social media-driven marketing apparatus around the show catered to that aspect:
- the creators set up fake show-related websites and 800 numbers (grabbed by astute fans who analyzed screen captures from the show that flashed by business cards or papers tacked to walls) with curious pre-recorded messages – all of which were part of two separate alternate reality games (The Lost Experience and Find 815).
- the network’s website for the show (laden with hidden multimedia content) was filled with seething, writhing fan…
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