New research reveals how extreme right networks manipulate search engines
Earlier this month, some rather disturbing research revealed that extreme right wing groups have been able to create a mutating network of links that ‘has hijacked Google’s search engine rankings’.
Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina, has published what is being cited as the first detailed research on how rightwing websites had spread their message. He took a list of fake news sites that was circulating and then ‘mapped’ them. The results, he says, were shocking.
Albright told The Observer’s Carol Cadwalladr: "They have created a web that is bleeding through on to our web. This isn’t a conspiracy. There isn’t one person who’s created this. It’s a vast system of hundreds of different sites that are using all the same tricks that all websites use. They’re sending out thousands of links to other sites and together this has created a vast satellite system of rightwing news and propaganda that has completely surrounded the mainstream media system."
According to Albright he found 23,000 pages and 1.3m hyperlinks. "And Facebook is just the amplification device. When you look at it in 3D, it actually looks like a virus. And Facebook was just one of the hosts for the virus that helps it spread faster. You can see the New York Times in there and the Washington Post and then you can see how there’s a vast, vast network surrounding them. The best way of describing it is as an ecosystem. This really goes way beyond individual sites or individual stories. What this map shows is the distribution network and you can see that it’s surrounding and actually choking the mainstream news ecosystem."
He described this mechanism as being "Like an organism that is growing and getting stronger all the time."
Cadwalladr put some of these findings to the test by typing in ‘are Jews’ into google search and was greeted immediately by the following predictive questions: are Jews white? Are Jews Christian? and then ‘are Jews evil?’ The websites that were listed for these searches were nearly all extreme right wing sites spewing venom and bigotry. Pretty much the same happened with a suggested question ‘are women…’ and ‘are Muslims’.
The top site for the autocomplete for the former was, ‘are women evil?’ which returned a top answer as a link to the site that said "Every woman has some degree of prostitute in her. Every woman has a little evil in her… Women don’t love men, they love what they can do for them. It is within reason to say women feel attraction but they cannot love men."
The autocomplete of ‘are Muslims’ as ‘are Muslims evil?’ highlighted ‘top answers’ which linked to abusive Islamophobic sites.
One of the people who Cadwalladr spoke to about this was Danny Sullivan who is a leading authority on google searches, and he is of the view that the extreme right has been able to ‘game Google’s algorithm’, they have been able to create sites with a network of links not just to each other but into mainstream sites through which they are able to gain a degree of ‘authority’.
Extremists have played the Internet to their advantage as we have seen in the cases of so many youngsters radicalised over the net by Islamic militants. But what researchers have now unearthed is a systematic hijacking of search engines to create a parallel universe where evil is good, and black is white….
This systematised choking of the web media by extremist networks is insidious.
We should be worried by it. Very worried.