Digital Smears

Remember Google bombing?  It was that thing a long time ago where by linking to a page using specific anchor text you could get it to rank for that phrase.  It meant that when you searched for miserable failure in Google, the top ranking result was for President Dubya.  Google bombing worked because SEO and link building work.  Google rank pages based on a combination of on and off page factors to determine best match relevance.

Thousands of people linked to the George W Bush profile on the White House website, and because of  a combination of existing website authority and topical links using “Miserable Failure” as anchor text demonstrating relevance, the algorithm made the assumption that the page was the most credible result for that search.  It may have been.

All that stopped working (kind of), and the need for a stronger relationship between the content of the linking page, the linked-to page, and the anchor text used meant that the effect of link bombing a page was lessened.  In fact the old dubya page no longer ranks in the top 10 for a “Miserable Failure”, which must be some comfort to the old duffer as he potters round his Texas ranch contemplating his legacy.

In the past, intelligent people would form opinions based on credible information.  Major publications, respected authors and authoritative, balanced journalism provided us with the evidence that we needed to determine the truth or otherwise of a piece of information.  Things are somewhat different today.  If a week goes past without someone dredging up a story about how Wikipedia is dominating search, it’s a surprise to me.  People form opinions based on data from unverifiable sources – Twitter, Facebook,Wikipedia, and Google Search.  While I’ve nothing against the opinions of my social connections, I don’t necessarily trust them to make a decision about my political choices.

Google bombing still works, but differently.  Just as the military have moved from indiscriminate destruction of entire cities to targeted destruction of entire people, it has become necessary to become much more targeted in the approach to smearing people, using content structures that appear legitimate and which gather authority from their spread through social media and citations from old media who force the stories deeper into the public consciousness, and simultaneously add weight to their presence.

This week, there’s been a big story bouncing around about some guy who seems to have pretty unrealistic expectations that he could be the next big thing in America.  He’s called Mitt Romney.  I’m sure he’s a lovely guy, but if I had a vote, there’s no way I’d be choosing him.


Because his name means “to defecate in terror”.  I know this because Google told me when I searched for information:

Shitting himselfI’m sure that Mr Romney would be a perfectly capable president, but imagine the look on a foreign leader’s face when they have to shake hands with Mr Shittinginfear, or the conversations that would happen around the world when he came to town.  Still, it’s not as bad as one of his rivals – the delightfully named Mr Santorum:

BleurrrghThat’s pretty nasty, and probably a difficult thing for the senator to explain to his kids when they ask.

There are stories behind each of these smears.  Romney is being accused of being weak on national security – note the use of the emotive “TERROR” in his definition, while Santorum said some pretty nasty things about the gay community.  Also, they’re both big boys, they can cope with it.

Smearing people is nothing new in politics.  I’m reasonably confident that even in the days of SPAAAAAAAAARTA insults were thrown around and certain things would stick.  News papers, particularly those owned by certain sick fucks have a lot of power and influence and spread a lot of lies.  The difference is that older media has balance to it, and users have exposure to different sources.  Google (and Bing) return very similar results, and in many cases, there is no opportunity for a response.

The ease with which we can find information, and the trust we place in the automated systems that sort and quantify that information for us mean that we are often exposed to unsupported material posing as truth.  The ease of publishing opinion coupled with the lack of proper editorial standards on the web lead to a culture where nothing is questioned properly.  We have access to a world of data, but because in the first analysis this data is rated arbitrarily under metrics that can be circumvented, the value of that data is limited.

There’s no easy answer, fast takedown of content would inevitably be misused to hide the truth where it was inconvenient.  You could say that Google could take more care with its results and prevent malicious content from appearing, but again, that would be misused and would not stop the problem.

There’s an argument that Google should offer a right to respond on results which are questionable – a non algorithmic insertion that provides some balance, but again, that relies  on people being aware that negative content appears and is damaging their business or personal brand, and once again, is open to abuse.

It’s an oversimplification to say that people should be more responsible about what they post.  We have a right to opinion and free speech – maybe readers should be more discerning about what they read – but there’s no smoke without fire.

Smearing companies, celebrities, and businesses has become too easy, and even with the best PR companies at your disposal, it isn’t always easy to remove that content from the web.  Content is copied, reposted, linked to, shared, and emailed so much that it becomes like the Hydra.

Perhaps the truth is more straightforward.  We live in an open society in which access to information, and the ability to publish information is simple.  Perhaps it is up to individuals and businesses to behave in an honourable and appropriate way, to lead as they would want to be led, and to have principals that recognise the importance of truth and the fact that sneaky behaviour seldom goes unpunished.