I recently watched the footage of Dylann Roof’s police interview on the New York Times. Roof killed nine African Americans in their church
I found the whole thing fascinating. But what really struck me was the seemingly banal role of Google Search in the story. As the Times reports:
He said his “racial awareness” had been inspired by a Google search of the phrase “black on white crime” after the reaction to the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old, by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla. ”That was it,” he said.
Later he talks about how he came to see things in racial terms and I wonder whether and how Google supported this. Did it confirm what he already thought or give Roof the impression that his beliefs were fact because Google said so? And Google doesn’t lie. They aren’t evil.
Let’s ask a counterfactual question:
What if, when Roof searched, he’d found some different results? Would it have changed things? We know that Google matches results to a users interests. So, if someone demonstrates latent “fascist potential” (as it’s called in the Authoritarian Personality studies) what if Google used this to restrict their access to provocative material? I’m not saying they should but things might be different. Doesn’t that mean Google Search has some active role in this crime?
As regular readers (all zero of them) will know, the logic behind this matching of search results is largely driven by an appeal to advertisers and a need for Google’s business model to work for the myth of matching to be applied across Google Search. I don’t want this to fall into yet another “aren’t algorithms evil” post but I think it’d be interesting to consider Google Search’s role in radicalisation. As I understand it, in the UK it’s a crime to encourage terrorism.
Here’s a short article I wrote for The Conversation on Google’s current battles with brands… More on this to come I think.
It is funny how things turn out – a point made movingly by Steve Job’s before his death. This is why I’m always skeptical of people who say business research has to support and congratulate business to be productive. And believe it or not there are plenty of people (often highly paid in top universities) who do say this. It is one of the reasons any academic research label “critical” gets marginalised.
Google is an incredibly successful company. As is made clear in its recent corporate re-structuring, it is also predominantly an advertising company. Perhaps it is the most successful advertising company ever. Yet, ironically, it began as a critical marketing project.
In their paper which introduced the Google search engine, Brin and Page were highly critical of the influence of advertising on the web. In fact, this is listed as one of the key motivations for developing a new search engine. The very first paragraph of the paper tells us that they set out to overcome: ‘some advertisers attempt[s] to gain people’s attention by taking measures meant to mislead automated search engines’. They go on to critique the effects of an ‘advertising business model’ on the quality of web searches. They even stated that ‘advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results’. And concluded that ‘advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers … In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want’.
In this case, the freedom to critique and question the advertising business model allowed Brin and Page the ability to understand it better and to exploit their understanding. Why do we not see similar arguments in top marketing journals?
Key finding: “non elite” journals are increasingly influential in the research people do. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1410.2217.pdf