It’s political season! Well, considering the American news cycle, political season seems to be perpetual at this point. It seems like politicians are campaigning at all times these days. It’s a presidential election year, though, so the ads and discussions are more ubiquitous than normal at the moment. Those “discussions” are inescapable by anyone who uses social media or goes just about anywhere on the internet. Everyone seems to be talking about the longshot party outsiders who are somehow challenging the political machine. They’re all asking how this happened.
It’s not much of a mystery. They made it happen.
The internet has changed the way people get information and the way that information is served to them. It’s changed the way we talk to each other. I’ve touched on this before when I discussed the clicks for cash system the web economy works on. I’ve also talked about the echo chamber effect a little bit. I didn’t really talk much about the way social media and search results can create conversational whirlpools.
I put the word discussions in quotation marks above because most talk is in the form of image macros and news bites with the odd link to a news article or blog post. These are pieces of content that are easily shared, usually with a quickly typed comment along the lines of “this is the worst/best thing ever”. They make their way around the web quickly, showing up in one feed, then another, and another. There’s a reason this sort of content is referred to as viral. It spreads.
I avoid discussion of candidates I dislike because the internet has turned them into Dark Lords. To utter their name is to give them power. I don’t discuss the ones I like (there aren’t many. None of the frontrunners, actually) because the names of the opposition will invariably be brought up. And that will feed The Beast.
There are multiple factors that contribute to this shitstorm. If a lot of users search for a term, or a variation of a term, search engines notice. They’ll start to react by autocompleting users’ searches based on what other people have searched for and clicked on. This will make users more likely to wind up running the same searches and seeing the same results. The number of people who click on and interact with a page (I say interact because no one outside of Google knows exactly how the calculation is done) will have a positive effect on its rank in search results. To simplify — the more people who click on a page in search results, the more people the search engine will show that page to.
But, there’s more to it than that. Social media tailors content to users. Facebook and Twitter, even Google+ for all 37 of its users, serve advertisements to you based on what you write, share, Like, click on, retweet, or just keep on your screen for an especially long time. They’ll also default your feed to display related content posted by people in your network. Talk about tacos and you start seeing ads for Taco Bell and posts about all the time your buddy spent in the bathroom after eating too many burritos at lunch.
Search engines… you know what? Screw it. I keep typing out “search engines” but we all just use Google.
So. Google takes social media into account when serving search results. The number of people talking about a subject will increase its ranking in news results. Links shared on Facebook and Twitter positively effect the pages and sites they point to. Websites can see what’s trending and will then produce content on those subjects.
What we have is a terribly self-perpetuating cycle. Donald Trump announced his candidacy. All the news outlets and blogs wrote pieces on it, usually mockingly. People clicked on those stories, so they ranked above other candidates’ and were more likely to be seen. More people seeing them meant more people shared them. More shares and comments told content producers (at this point I just can’t think of them as news outlets) that people were interested in these stories, so they wrote more of them. Which effected Google results. The more of an asshole he made of himself the more he’s been talked about and the more his opponents’ results have been suppressed.
A similar effect can be seen on the left with Bernie Sanders. There were so many stories about how he had no chance that they increased his exposure to the point that he suddenly had one. The old saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has been made even more true in this age of social and search engine news. The internet is, in some ways, the very worst kind of democracy. It reacts to the will of the people, often giving us what we hate or fear, not what we want it to. It’s like Gozer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. By thinking about it we may very well have collectively chosen the form of our destroyer.
*I’ve engaged in quite a bit of hyperbole in writing this post. It was fun! I’ve also simplified some complex stuff. Google’s algorithms take more than what I’ve discussed into account; quality of content, how often the host site is updated, how long the article is, and a ton of other factors. All of those being equal (or close enough to) search results and social media activity can have a very profound effect on what people see.
I planned to apply a more balanced set of memes and take some swipes at multiple candidates. The Trump macros were just so much better I couldn’t help myself. It probably has something to do with art students having a predilection for socialism.