Hey Google, don’t be evil! This is exactly the kind of thing we were afraid would happen without strict net neutrality rules — and lo and behold, here it is: The search engine is helping the gas lobby support fracking by stacking search results with pro-fracking ads that look like search results. And as this Truthout article says, it’s having a negative effect on how peer-reviewed fracking research is perceived by the public:
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.