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I heard this story a while back: If you typed “miserable failure” into Google, it would bring you right to George W. Bush’s official White House biography. That was back before Richard Gephardt, the man who used and over used the term to refer to the current administration, became, well, a “miserable failure” on the campaign trail. Now, it turns out that other groups have retaliated and if you type in the phrase, you may find such liberal icons as Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, or Michael Moore.

The New York Times last week called it “google bombing,” describing a new form of online activism which turns the search engines into tools for political rhetoric. Here’s how they describe it: “Unlike Web politicking by other means, like hacking into sites to deface or alter their message, Google bombing is a group sport, taking advantage of the Web-indexing innovation that led Google to search-engine supremacy. The perpetrators succeed by recruiting a small group of accomplices to link from their Web sites to a target site using specific anchor text (the clickable words in a link). The more high-traffic sites that link a Web page to a particular phrase, the more Google tends to associate that page with the phrase - even if, as in the case of the president’s official biography, the term does not occur on the destination site.” Don’t try this at home, kids!

This kind of activism, which involves a relatively small number of people, reveals some of the flaws in the way our contemporary search engines operate. The Times notes that some “google bombs” have been effective with as few as twenty links. At the same time, we should keep in mind that many of the search engines currently in use are biased towards an even smaller number of entities – i.e. individual companies – who are willing to pay to have their sites pop up higher on many of the standard search engines. So, one group subverts the information flow with links, the other with cash. Why do I feel like I am living in a bad cyberpunk novel!

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