Are you getting biased information when you Google for political news?
Last election, Democratic bloggers "Google bombed" dozens of Republican candidates, which pushed negative news articles higher in their search results. This worries National Review's Mark Hemingway (of Supreme Court "sissy mary" fame), who argues that Democrats are winning the "arms race" of Internet activism. His new article, "Google Gap," sounds the alarm. Hemingway makes a good case study for the five stages of grief that Republicans experience when pondering Democratic dominance online: anxiety, adoration, outrage, denial, and finally, reversion to rivalry. It's a kick to watch him bare his nervous, partisan soul.
Hemingway begins, predictably, with anxious anonymous complaints: "some would say [Google bombing] is insidious." (I wonder who?) Then he lauds the Internet's big impact: "there's no way to quantify the contribution of Google bombing to the Democrats' electoral success," but it surely "can't be discounted." And you knew it was coming -- those outrageous blogger ethics: "The liberal blogosphere ... [has] few if any ethical qualms" about Google bombing. Then Hemingway turns to the cold comfort of denial: "Few Google bombs make it to the top result where they could have the most impact," and experts say many of these efforts are "almost completely worthless."
So what is the upshot to all this grief?
Republicans should use the Internet like Democrats, of course! (The rivalry stage.) "Republicans are outmatched when it comes to tapping the resources of the Internet for political gain," Hemingway concludes, and then passes the mic to a Republican operative, who ends the article calling on his party to embrace "a more effective Internet strategy going into 2008." This would presumably include Google bombing.
Put the grief aside, though, and it's clear that Hemingway really doesn't get Internet activism. Political Google bombing is simply one example of how regular people can use the Internet to have a greater say in public discourse. Writers may like blogs and comment sections. Thousands of less verbal activists, however, prefer communal projects that influence the debate. But even committed Google Bombers don't think that promoting a given link ends the debate. Google is popular because of its pluralism. People use it to get a range of information and views -- not a single answer - especially when they're trolling for politics. Hemingway misses this reality when he presents a false choice between objective and manipulated results:
When you search the Internet for information are you seeing an objective listing of what's notable about that candidate or issue -- or are you seeing what someone else wants you to see?
The top results for a candidate (or any search term) have never been an "objective" notability listing. They are a rough measure of popularity online. Ironically, that measure is actually closer to Hemingway's stab at the second, supposedly scary choice of "seeing what someone else wants you to see." Here's how Google explains its search system:
PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page's value. In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But, Google looks at considerably more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; for example, it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves "important" weigh more heavily and help to make other pages "important."
Google bombers agree. They are "voting" to make certain links important. By promoting a link about, say, Rudy Giuliani's decision to put personal profit above serving on the Iraq Study Group, they're contending that link should be important. Other people will ultimately decide what, if anything, to do about it. (As it turns out, Google does not always agree. The company has taken some steps to reduce the impact of bombing campaigns to alter rankings.)
The fundamental point for politics is that a good search engine should provide access to a wide range of information sources, based on mass popularity, niche popularity and activists who can achieve visibility through numbers. This is good for public discourse - across the political spectrum.
Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler, an expert on Internet policy, argues that one of the Internet's greatest virtues is this ability to present "contested" narratives in our culture, society and politics. In his book, The Wealth of Networks, Benkler examines this phenomenon by comparing the results of Internet searches for "Barbie":
Google... uses a radically decentralized mechanism for assigning relevance... The little girl who searches for Barbie on Google will encounter a culturally contested figure. The same girl, searching on Overture [a commercial search engine], will encounter a commodity toy... In an environment where relevance is measure in non market action ... as opposed to in dollars, Barbie has become a more transparent cultural object. It is easier for the little girl to see that the doll is not only a toy, not only a symbol of beauty and glamor, but also a symbol of how norms of female beauty in our society can be oppressive to women and girls.
The transparency does not force the girl to choose one meaning of Barbie or another. It does, however, render transparent that Barbie can have multiple meanings and that choosing meaning is a matter of political concern for some set of people who coinhabit this culture. Yahoo! occupies something of a middle ground -- its algorithm does link to two of the critical sites among the top ten... (emphasis added)
In other words, Google is for the questions. The answers are up to us.