Ads on Google have placed pro-fracking propaganda at the top of Google search results and into the middle of an important discussion on the environmental impacts of fracking. The practice raises important questions about the role of search engines in the new media world.
For more than 17 months, Robert Howarth, an ecology professor at Cornell, has had a Google problem. Howarth is the chief author of an important paper on the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial method of obtaining natural gas. The paper concludes that the practice is not a clean way to extract domestic energy, as many allege, and has an even greater carbon footprint than coal. The paper's conclusions poke holes in some of the most common talking points used by supporters of fracking and made major headlines, including a large and prominently placed article in The New York Times in April 2011. Howarth, along with one of his co-authors, Anthony Ingraffea, and activist actor Mark Ruffalo, were ranked by Time as among the 100 "people who matter" in 2011.
The paper also got the attention of the gas lobby. Most notably, America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA). Soon after the paper was released, Howarth and others noticed a disturbing phenomenon on Google. Every time Professor Howarth's name was placed into a Google search engine, the first thing that appeared was an ad from ANGA, devoted strictly to hampering the credibility of Howarth's research. The page was listed as an ad but at a quick glance, it simply looked like the top search result. As of the time of this writing, late October, the ad still displayed that way.
The ad, and the ability of industry to use Google ads for these purposes, raises important questions about the role that Google and other prominent search engines will have on important political and scientific discourse. Do Google and other companies have a responsibility to the public to consider the way their search engine can be used to advance the interests of certain industries? This method naturally empowers wealthy industries to dominate Google search results given their massive resources and vested financial interests in the way in which science is discussed in the public sphere. And the company does ultimately answer to shareholders and not to the public at large. Given this reality, what can we expect from Google and other corporate giants of the Internet world when it comes to providing valuable information that serves the public?
The content of the ad includes attacks that Howarth is "not credentialed to do the kind of chemical analysis required for this field of study," his research is "not well documented" and his conclusions "extreme." They also argue that the vast majority of scientists are skeptical of Howarth's conclusions.
In an interview with Truthout, Howarth meticulously refuted the statements in the ad, saying they are "very misleading" and argues that, contrary to what is portrayed in the ad, "many more scientists agree with and support our research than disagree with it." Howarth claims the ad has been alarmingly effective at shaping the debate on the issue and disrupting his career.
"The ad is incredibly unethical. It is a deliberate attempt to distort and suppress information and to intimidate me and also any other scientist who has research results that the gas industry may not like," he said. "Whenever anyone googles my name to find out more about me and our research, they get the ad. This means that anyone who might want to apply to get a Ph.D. with me at Cornell will see this highly biased, distorted set of information. Applications to my lab are way down."
Many younger scientists, Howarth said, have expressed trepidation at researching the fracking issue for fear of a rebuttal from the industry. "That is incredibly damaging in the long run."
He also has noticed an impact on media coverage of the issue. "Any reporter who wants to interview me will see the ANGA ad. As a result, their questions tend to focus on having me respond to the criticisms, rather than objectively present our research," he said. "It turns our research into a 'he said-he said' framework, where everything is controversial and questioned … even basic facts become controversial because of the ad. Our research is diminished, the public is misled."
It is easy to find evidence of the media being influenced by the ad. Under the aforementioned ANGA ad, Google search listings under Howarth's name, using the term "fracking," are largely dominated by articles amplifying its content. A Forbes article that repeats many of the ad's claims and mockingly claims that The New York Times turned Howarth into an "anti-fracking rockstar," is a typical example.
Mr. Ingraffea, a co-author of the piece (but whose name does not get the same treatment on Google), says the ads serve to "diminish the peer-review process" and thus weaken the public's understanding of the science behind fracking. "We try to talk to Google about this. The company has a lot of valuable products. We would like to know if they understand the implications of these ads," he said.
Ingraffea is right to look to Google - a company which famously urges "don't be evil" - and consider its role in this situation. After all, lobbying groups have been aggressively trying to counter scientific data that threatens their bottom line for as long as they have existed. Miranda Spencer, writing for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, documented how supporters of fracking have dominated the debate by purchasing a large number of ads during national newscasts. The oil industries' laughable, though sometimes effective, efforts to pretend global warming is a sham conspiracy are also an obvious case in point. But the role that Google has in allowing a lobbying group that naturally is seeking to advance its industry's economic interests to be placed at the forefront of the debate warrants close examination.
Indeed, the Howarth ad is not an isolated incident. Filmmaker Josh Fox has also been a target of these types of ads. When the title of the anti-fracking film Gasland is entered into Google, a very similar ad from ANGA, this one titled "Truth about Gasland, " appears right at the top. Ads from ANGA also appear when the term "Josh Fox" is searched, as is the case when the title of his new film, "The Sky Is Pink," is entered into the engine. The Sky is Pink, Fox told Truthout in a phone interview, mentions the troubling Google ads that have smeared his name (around the 6:00 mark).
"It's really an insidious practice. It is like having a fear campaign on the card catalogue in the library," said Fox, who wrote a detailed letter to Google looking for the ad to be removed (with no response from Google so far). "It's an abuse.... They have to be conscious of the fact that it is hampering people's reputations. And, worse, they are making money - in my case, quite a lot - from this. They should immediately cease the practice ... because Google is profiting off the smearing of a renowned scientist and an Academy Award-nominated film."
"Cathles et al. remain critical of our work, but most objective scientists believe they are wrong," Howarth said. He contended the paper's authors "never worked on greenhouse gas emission issues before publishing their criticism of our work" and charged that some of them have "deep industry connections." Cathles is also a climate change skeptic, Howarth added, and after the BP oil spill in 2010, aggressively warned that the public "not overreact" to the spill, in an article defending drilling for oil offshore. Howarth and his co-authors have written a detailed response to the Cathles paper. Cathles and his co-authors have published a response to that retort as well.
The concern here, however, is not that disagreements should be not be publicized, but whether or not industrial lobbying groups - rather than scientists or the googling public - should be able to advance their arguments according to their ability to purchase the top spots on Google. The ANGA ad attempts to make the Howarth paper look ridiculous, not to add to a serious debate on the pros and cons of fracking.
Dealing with a changing media world
The rise of the Internet as the primary way in which communication is shared and consumed is an ever-evolving reality that has forced everyone to adjust. There can be no doubt that the Web can have important positive effects for engaged citizens, such as easier access to information from a wide array of sources and the ability for citizens to make and shape news without the filter of mainstream, corporate media. Many cite the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street as examples of movements that benefited greatly from their ability to use new media technology to spread information and organize.
But the good comes with the bad. And while in some ways the Internet has empowered citizens, it is also true that corporations are growing increasingly effective at using Web tools to their own ends. It simply cannot be ignored that the search engines that almost all Internet users use to find information are themselves the products of corporations seeking to maximize profits through the sales of ads and collection of user information. The reality is that corporations are increasingly controlling the Internet.
Edward Herman, co-author with Noam Chomsky of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which analyzed the propaganda function of the mass media, has warned from the early days of the Web that "although the new technologies have great potential for democratic communication, left to the market there is little reason to expect the Internet to serve democratic ends."
He added, "One could argue that the new technologies are exacerbating the problem. They permit media firms to shrink staff while achieving greater outputs and they make possible global distribution systems, thus reducing the number of media entities."
Will Youmans, a scholar at George Washington University who studies the way new media technology can impact news and social movements, has documented how some states use the very Internet tools that are given credit for movements like the Arab Spring, to "inhibit activists and empower authoritarian regimes," he wrote in the Journal of Communication.
One of the great ironies of the Web as it exists today is that the technology behind it was created in the public sector, namely through the Pentagon. But, increasingly, the Internet has been controlled by the private sector - and thus largely functions to serve private capital, not to benefit the public whose tax dollars were used to create it. The ANGA ad is a good example of this dynamic. The ad benefits Google, which profits from selling the ad space and the fracking industry, which is allowed to purchase the ability to dominate the political discussion. The public good is not a consideration at all. It will take struggle to keep this trend from rendering the Internet primarily a tool to serve elites.
Therefore, as promising as new media technology is, in terms of advancing information and empowering the general public, there are many pitfalls that ought to concern the public. And Google has, in many ways, become the most important company in this new world, especially with its search engine - which grabs a remarkable 66.8 percent share of the search engine market. It is followed by Bing, the Microsoft-owned search engine, which holds about 15 percent of the market. In light of these figures, we cannot avoid the reality that the actions of the major search engines go a long in way in determining which information is seen widely and which is not.
Interestingly, Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president, has complained that a large ad purchase her campaign made with Google was initially rejected by the company. Google claims the ad was turned away because it contained a censored obscenity and eventually decided to run the ad after some negative publicity, but the scenario further illustrates the way Google can determine what information reaches the public.
Google's silence on these issues is troubling. If Google is mulling the complexities of this method of obtaining revenue, they are not making such deliberations public. "They are stifling public discourse, while turning a profit themselves," Howarth said. "I have tried for over a year to complain to Google, but they have never responded to me."
Several efforts to contact Google by Truthout also proved unsuccessful.