4/21/17: SEE UPDATE BELOW!
Ok, 2016 has been terrible. Really, really terrible. Both personally and publicly, some amazing people and animals died. We’ve had an election to end all elections. Everyone hates 2016, right?
Remember when memes went around saying so-and-so died, and then we realized it was just someone playing a prank on everyone, and ha ha, just a prank, no, Sly is not really dead.
Yes, there has been some bad news this year, but there has also been an explosion of Real Bad news, and that Real Bad news is fake news. Because it’s hard to discern fake news from fact-based news, and because politicians have seeded suspicion of traditional journalism outlets, facts have become subjective.
Double You. Tee. Eff.
Saying Sylvester Stallone is dead was fake news, something someone made up to punk us all. And when we realized that he was still alive, we shrugged it off.
But now the pranks have taken a more sinister turn. They’ve been engineered to breed anger, hatred, mistrust, deep divisions, and even violence. One of the reasons people create fake news is simply economic; they want to drive ad revenue. Their sites are heavily pocked with ads, using Google Adsense and other ad networks. Each time someone clicks on an advertisement link, or each time the advertisement is seen, those websites make money.
This is where SEO (Search Engine Optimization) comes in.
I’ve written before about the basics of SEO, but here’s a short recap. Google (or whatever search engine you prefer) pushes websites to the first page of the search results according to how popular the website is and how well its text matches the words people use when they search. There are tons of other factors that go into this, but that’s the gist.
When I say popular I mean that lots of other websites, social posts, etc. link back to a website. Google reads these links as signs that this website is important. The more people link to this site, the more Google pushes that site to the top of search. What Google doesn’t take into account is whether or not the site tells the truth. For better or worse, we often “fact check” information by Googling it. A Google search in 2012 for “Is David Bowie dead” would’ve shown us the truth that no, David Bowie is not dead. But a Google search today regarding inflammatory untruths doesn’t necessarily do that.
Here’s an example. There’s been a rumor going around that a town in Sweden banned Christmas lights because Muslims were offended by them. This validates some people’s beliefs that 1. there’s a war on Christmas and 2. Muslim refugees are a threat to western ways of life. This is indeed, you guessed it, fake news. But look what happens when you Google it.
Snopes is the first website that comes up, and if you click on it you’ll see that the story is false. But in the title and the description that show up in the search results, there is no indication of the veracity of the story. In fact, nowhere on the entire first page of search results do we see that this is false.
So, for the person who’s looking to quickly confirm his or her bias, boom. Confirmed. Sweden has banned Christmas lights so they don’t offend Muslims. There’s no need to open up Snopes. In fact, Snopes itself seems to have confirmed it in the search results.
And here’s another problem. Snopes is a well-respected website with a lot of clout in Google search. See how they came up at the top? That’s all well and good, but because Snopes is linking out to these fake news stories as it debunks them, it helps push those websites up in search. Get it?
Google has claimed to be neutral, but over the years its algorithm has proven that even a robot is biased. Another example. Let’s say I want to buy Scrabble for my sister for Christmas. I search online for “where can I buy Scrabble.” I know that there are probably tons of local toy stores, game stores, and book stores that carry Scrabble. But look what Google shows me:
Target, Walmart, Walmart, Walmart, Amazon, Amazon. It’s no wonder local stores are closing. Of course more people will link to Target, Walmart (Walmart, Walmart), and Amazon (Amazon) than to the Tattered Cover or Skylight Books (my two favorite bookstores, by the way). They are enormous beasts. And because more people link to them, they show up at the top of search results. The small businesses stand no chance against them, even though many of us would prefer going to our local toy store a billion times more than wading through the exhausting maze of Walmart.
Google’s algorithm is inherently biased against small businesses. Though they’ve tried to mitigate this by adding local results to some searches, in most cases small businesses lose, and they lose big.
Despite its goal to be an unbiased receptacle of all the world’s information, Google can’t help but be far from neutral since Google alone determines what information is worth seeing.
One study shows that 91% of internet users do not go past the first page of search results. This means that I now know I can buy Scrabble at Target, Walmart, Walmart, Walmart, Amazon, and Amazon. But that’s all I know. As the average internet user, I’m not going to wade through page after page of search results. So Google has handed a big gift to these giant corporations in the form of my small gift of Scrabble to my sister.
I could obviously go on and on about this, but let’s step back for a second. If you do any sort of online or tech stuff, you probably know what an algorithm is, and forgive me for the shaky explanation that follows. For those of you who don’t, let me try to explain. An algorithm is, in a way, a mathematical calculation designed to yield a result.
If this, then that.
Initially Google used a basic algorithm like “If links and keywords, then high search rankings.” Then suddenly a professional field of SEO popped up, where people figured out that this algorithm was easy to trick. If I get thousands of websites to link to my website, and if I fill my website with keywords, no matter how unnatural looking, then my website will pop up higher in search.
People began to create millions of junk–ok, let’s just call them fake–websites in order to link back to their own website so that they could sell their products, services, or ad space (sound familiar?), no matter how crappy said products, services, and content were.
Google caught on. Then Google’s algorithm became more sophisticated. If links from well-respected sites, i.e. sites that also have tons of links, if lower bounce rate, if naturally placed keywords and high-quality writing, if a lack of previous black-hat SEO, if local reviews, then higher search results.
And Google hasn’t stopped there. Its algorithm is constantly learning how to better evaluate the strength and importance of a website, but in the end “if links and keywords, then higher search rankings” still wins. Social media plays into this as well by sending visitors to these websites, which in turn gets other websites to link to them.
This is why the fake news sites pop up high in search. The algorithm is still, in many ways, that simple. I type a query into the search bar, and Google’s algorithm chooses the search results based on what words I used and how they appear on websites and what sites have the most links and/or attention.
There is no truth in these results, just information. When we used libraries to research, we had librarians to help us determine what information was true and what information was false. Today’s search results ensure that tabloid news and fact-based research are worth the same, and sometimes tabloid news is worth even more.
Remember when we were all in on the joke? When we saw Batboy at the check out stand and we knew what that area of the grocery store meant? When the real magazines were in the magazine aisle, and the fake news had its special spot at the front so that we could flip through it and snicker as we stood in line? When it was just entertainment, and we all knew it?
There’s no more special spot for the tabloids. Batboy is just as real–if not more real!–as the New European bat, and there are a few million people who are pissed off that there’s a Batboy lurking in a cave nearby. The question is, when Google’s unbiased search results confirm that the dangerous and terrifying Batboy is real, what will people do with that information?
It makes me scared for Batboy.
As of 4/21/17, Google has added a fact check feature that shows when a site is a fact-checking site, but it still doesn’t add that to results from lying sources.