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John Simkin

The Politics of Search-Engines

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It is now becoming clear that many people are getting their information from the Internet. This is an interesting shift in political power. In pre-Internet days the owners of mass-media organisations had tremendous power over people’s political opinions. For example, Rupert Murdoch has been the most influential figure in recent elections in Britain. Over the last few weeks, the leaders of our two main political parties have visited Murdoch in order to present their proposed policies for the next election.

How will the Internet change this situation? In the United States Howard Dean has recently shown how you can raise money and organize supporters via the Internet. The anti-capitalism groups have also used to Internet effectively. I also suspect that those countries like China will find the Internet making it more and more difficult to control the information that gets to their people.

If people in the future get their political information from the Internet it seems that the web will become a battleground of ideas. If that is the case, search-engines like Google will play an increasing role in the development of political opinions. For example, what websites will appear at the top of the page rankings when you are researching a particular subject?

Recently I have been researching the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This is a highly political subject.

Therefore, what happens if you type “assassination of John F. Kennedy” into the Google search-engine. We are told there are 157,000 relevant websites. Ranked first is John Mcadams’ website. It is of course one of the few assassination websites that believes the conclusions of the Warren Commission. The second on the list is the American government’s NRA Assassination Records website. The third one is very surprising. It is a website in Germany that does not contain any information except a title page.

(1) http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/home.htm

(2) http://www.archives.gov/research_room/jfk/

(3) http://www.jfk-assassination.de/

It is claimed that since the arrival of Google search-engines can be trusted to rank websites in the order of relevance to the query. This is based on Google’s decision to place great emphasis on the number of websites linked to individual sites. Google class this as “peer-group” approval. This is a sensible approach, for example, people with an interest in the Kennedy assassination, are likely to give links to other websites that they have found useful in researching the subject.

If you do a search of individuals involved in the investigation into the assassination you are likely to find Google take you to John Mcadams’ website.

If you type in “David Lifton” you discover that there are 22,900 relevant web pages on this subject. Ranked first is a page from John Mcadams’ website. This is in fact an article by Lifton with the title: “Is Jim Garrison Out of His Mind?” This page is linked to others on Mcadams website that of course an attempt to undermine Lifton’s theories on the assassination. My much more sympathetic account of Lifton’s theories is only ranked 4th.

(1) http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/lifton1.htm

(4) http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/JFKlifton.htm

One would therefore assume that there are more links to Mcadams page on Lifton than mine. There is in fact a website that allows you to check how many websites are linked to individual pages.

http://www.marketleap.com/publinkpop/default.htm

This website shows that Google does not show any links to either page. Therefore, Google must be taken something else into account. Maybe it is the links to the home page of the respective websites.

http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/home.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/

This is also not the case. Mcadams has according to Google got 264 websites linked to his home page whereas I have 6,750. This situation is reflected in other search-engines: AltaVista (744/30,601); Hotbot (0/17,433); MSN (0/17,321).

What then is happening? The answer is that there is a conspiracy is against non-American websites. That is why my page on David Lifton is ranked lower than that of John Macadams. It is also true when searching for information on British subjects. However, to be fair to Google, they do allow you to limit your search to websites based in a particular country.

The other flaw in the Google system is that it places too much emphasis on the domain name of the site. This helps to explain why the German website was ranked 3rd although it did not contain any information on the subject. Google just assumed that it would because of its URL: http://www.jfk-assassination.de/ . I find this a common problem when doing searches via Google.

The danger is that Google and other search-engines will manipulate their rankings in favour of a particular point of view. I recently discovered that it appears to be doing this already. For example, I believe that Google is biased against racist sites. For example, if you type in “Ku Klux Klan” into the Google you get 160,000 pages. The first four are:

(1) http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAkkk.htm

(2) http://www.wckkkk.com/

(3) http://www.kkklan.com/

(4) http://www.kukluxklan.org/

Top of the list is my page on the Ku Klux Klan. It is of course a highly critical account of the history of this organization. I have had a large number of emails from teachers in the Deep South complaining about this ranking. They are particularly concerned by my explanations of how and why the organization was formed. They also don’t like the information I have provided about the role the KKK have played in lynchings. Teachers are particularly concerned about their students using this material to research school projects. This is especially a problem in places like Texas which has a long tradition of controlling the educational materials that their students use in the classroom.

Anyone who knows about how the Google ranking system works is rather surprised by the Ku Klux Klan ranking. For a start my website is obviously based in England. Unlike the official Ku Klux Klan websites, its name does not appear in the domain name. Nor has it anything to do with links. According to Market Leap no sites are linked to mine whereas the next three do have links (1,011, 212, 189). Therefore I am left with the impression that Google is manipulating the rankings for political reasons.

At the moment liberal like me would not be willing to complain about this. However, what about the future. Google is just about to float on the Stock Exchange. Who will eventually gain control of this organization? What influence might they have on future search-engine rankings?

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