Has Google Been Culturally Hacked?

On the latest episode of the Annenberg Media Truth Squad Truthcast, we spoke to Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor of communication at Elon University, and a leading authority on how fake news sites and hyper partisan websites spread their messages.


Through extensive research, Albright mapped out what he calls a fake-news ecosystem: fake news and hyper partisan sites use links to trick Google and other search engines into finding them more easily; when you visit one of these sites, your computer will download trackers that will serve up personalized political messages.

This semester, we’ve been tracking what’s in our filter bubble, we’ve been looking at rip and tilt sites, and we’ve found advertising sites masquerading as news . Albright gives his insight into all these things and offers his advice on what we can do.

Although there are economic factors that make it an incentive for some of these sites to spread bogus or tilted information, Albright told us there are far too many factors at work to blame pure greed for the rise of misinformation.

In fact, Albright hypothesized that much of it has to do with “injecting excess noise to make it harder to find facts or to find information, and to also throw people off.

“So it’s not just about convincing it’s about distorting and distracting.”

Albright wants us all to take a look at the phenomenon from a wider angle. His goal is to go beyond data journalism or network analysis and to give readers a visual perspective of how these websites are connected together.

Albright became interested after the election when many people were blaming the election results on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. And although they can be influential, Albright doesn’t think that any one platform served as the major pass-through site for misinformation.

And if there was one site to key a careful watch on — it’s Google. Albright talks about how the first sites that can come up on a Google search can often be false, or misleading. He calls this “Cultural Hacking”, where now other sites are hacking into the resources we use to find facts, turning it into larger problem. Albright says YouTube specifically is hosting a lot of the propaganda — and that it’s been “culturally hacked”.

Albright leaves us with some advice: consider turning off Google’s instant prediction. There’s a newer setting in Google under search results where you can set the results to verbatim — which allows you to go back to a more keyword based search instead of what Google thinks you’re searching for — resulting in links to a lot of these hyper partisan and fake news sites.

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