How the Trump-Russia Data Machine Games Google to Fool AmericansPhoto by Justin Sullivan Politics Features Fake News!
A year ago I was part of a digital marketing team at a tech company. We were maybe the fifth largest company in our particular industry, which was drones. But we knew how to game Google, and our site was maxed out. We did our research and geared the content for the major keywords that we knew people used most frequently when they were shopping for drones or researching drones or looking for drone video. We knew our audience: their buying habits, their interests, ages, geography, etc., and soon our Google results were up there with a company that was literally an order of magnitude bigger than we were. A few months later, we were beating them at Google.
Our sales reflected this nearly immediately, but perhaps more importantly, we were perceived as being much bigger and more influential than we actually were. It was unfair and fair at the same time. It’s just how that game is played, everywhere.
But then the giants wised up, poured a ton of people and money into it and squashed us.
Thing is, it doesn’t take all that much to do what we did. Ask any digital marketer. You just need a little experience and a whole lot of time and money. I’m not going to get into the weeds of SEO (search engine optimization). But I am going to say something that sounds completely insane, and warn you that we’re in the middle of something we’ve never experienced in America: a full-on psychological war. And Google, of all places, is a main battlefield.
I’m going to show you one specific weapon in this war that’s being used against you and me and the United States right now: Google. There are other information weapons, such as bots and fake news sites, but other stories have those pretty well covered. But before we get started, though, two things to keep in mind:
First, most of us don’t even know we’re in this war yet. You don’t know when you’ve been wounded, when you’ve been killed. And that’s the whole point: You’re not supposed to.
Second, the attacks in this war aren’t aimed at your enemies. You attack your own side.
Independence Is Division
First: Why this is important. Why this is a war.
Google, whether you’re aware of it or not, is a total slaughterhouse. Trump’s data team (he’s reportedly set up a “war room” to combat the Russia story) has weaponized information, and for about a year now has been slaying American brains: Trump supporters’ brains. It started with the election, then died down, but now it’s coming back, vengeful and desperate.
As a result, we’re at a pivotal point not just in the life of our democracy, but in how we think, read, and make choices. Selective information is being presented to us in a way that encourages selective reading and offers psychological and social rewards for, to put it bluntly, being stupid and submissive and spreading stupid to submit others.
This is, of course, about the truth, and about the cognitive and emotional vulnerabilities of Americans. This is nothing new for propagandists. What’s different now is that this propaganda is being gamed by professionals in a massive, orchestrated data campaign at a volume, pace, and consistency that not only muddies the truth, but completely eclipses the truth. Destroys the very notion of truth.
I can describe it in no other terms but a war.
The truth about the truth is that we believe because we want to, because our ability to think independently is a point of pride for Americans. The people behind the curtain are telling us the same story we tell ourselves about ourselves. But this is also a vulnerability: Independence is in its purist form a kind of division. If you exploit it the right way, you can turn a democracy against itself. If I think about this for too long I grow terrified and want to take everyone’s computer away. But it might be too late.
Beyond the Bots: Trump’s Twitter Toupee
The past few days, we’ve seen some good reporting about the surge of Trump bots on social media. (Bots are automated, non-human accounts.) And though he didn’t, as some people have claimed, net five million new Twitter followers in three days (though he did gain three million in May), nearly half of his followers, a full 49 percent, aren’t real people.
That’s right: Trump is being followed by 15 million robots.
The Washington Post just ran a pretty cowardly piece about Trump’s bot following. They titled it “Something Fishy Is Going on with Trump’s Twitter Account,” but didn’t say why this fishiness mattered in the first place. Who really cares if his followers are fake? So what if he wears a Twitter toupee? (A Twoupee, if you will.) We’re used to that from Trump.
Here’s where WaPo wouldn’t, for some reason, go: those bots aren’t just digital codpieces. They’re attack vectors for weaponized information. What does that mean?
When we think about the Russian attacks during the election, most of us probably think of the DNC hacks, Podesta, and the steady drips from WikiLeaks of that stolen information. If you hate Hillary Clinton, I’m sure that at some point in the past nine months you’ve said something like, “Well, who cares how that information got out there, it’s the truth!”
I won’t argue. Instead, I’d like to point out that’s not the whole story. According not just to me and FAKE NEWS! reports, but to the declassified U.S. intelligence report on Russian subversion in the 2016 election, the attacks included weaponizing false information (what “fake news” really is: stuff that’s entirely made up; pure fiction) and creating real-seeming sites to host this fake news. So no, the whole hacking effort was not just publishing “the truth” about Clinton. Much of it was publishing fake news. Or, perhaps more dangerously, misleading news.
This brings us to Google today. A couple weeks ago I saw an insane person on my Facebook feed screaming about how Obama had leaked classified information about the Bin Laden raid that got people killed. What the fuck? I’d never heard anything about this, and the raid was six years ago, and this guy was a total right-wing crackpot, which is the trifecta for guaranteeing at least fifteen full minutes of batshit conspiracy theory misinfotainment. So I duly Googled “obama classified information bin laden.” If you do that right now, here’s what you get.
WHAAAAAT?! Obama’s mouth killed people! Media is libturd hypocrites!
Let’s ignore the criminal level of stupidity for a minute. Look instead at the dates on those articles. May 16 and 17 of this year. This year. The Bin Laden raid, again, was six fucking years ago. What’s happening here? Why are all these different white nationalist news sites suddenly writing about this together? Why did they start doing it on May 16? Why do those articles even exist?
Well, on May 15, you might remember, The Washington Post broke this little gem: President Trump shared top secret intel with the Russian Foreign Minister and Russian Ambassador. In the Oval Office. In front of Russian state media.
The right-wing bullshit factory lurched to life. These outlets launched a broad “what about?” attack, a coordinated attack, on Obama and the left. That bullshit story about Obama’s “dangerous” classified “leak” suddenly broke throughout the right-wing media sphere. Some of these articles are even cut-and-paste jobs. There’s no effort here, just content. Tons of content, made quickly, made together, all spewing the same lies, but optimized.
But if you’ll notice the bottom of that results page, there’s a single redeeming link: PolitiFact. Thing is, it’s at the bottom. But Alexa, a service that ranks all websites around the world based on their traffic, ranks PolitiFact much higher (~10,000) than the hit just above it, “trumptrainnews.com” (~128,000). Shouldn’t such a gap work in PolitiFact’s favor?
It doesn’t. And it doesn’t work in your favor, either.
Let Me Google That for You
Now let’s see exactly what’s up here. Together, we’re going to Google the phrase “trump no evidence collusion.” (And because Google searches change over time, I’ll drop screenshots of my results here.) What will emerge is a picture of an invisible hand writing a specific argument, over and over and over. That hand belongs to Robert Mercer, Trump’s data man, who gamed Google and fake news during the campaign and whose return to the scene is heralded by Trump’s war room and bot boom. If you want, you can read more about this crazyAF, richAF, crackpot genius with a heart of shit.
Before we begin, though, we need to establish the fact that this statement is a lie: “There’s no evidence of collusion!” The reason I’m using this specific example is because this highly nuanced claim is the perfect loophole to exploit for misinformation, to shade the truth as lie and get away with it clean.
The truth: no one in the intelligence community and no one on any of the Congressional committees looking into this thing, be they Democrat or Republican, none of them have said categorically, flat-out, “There is no evidence of collusion.” Period. People investigating the case will only go so far as to say they haven’t seen any evidence. Or that there hasn’t been any evidence made available to them yet. But they don’t ever say there flat-out isn’t any evidence of collusion. Ever. Read this if you don’t believe me.
Back to the Googs. Here’s what I saw when I Googled “trump no evidence collusion” on the afternoon of May 29.
How many mainstream sites do you see on the first page? Zero. Let’s go to page two.
Ah! There, buried under InfoWars and National Review and The Blaze and not one, not two, but three pieces from The Free Beacon, we finally find good old Reuters! And, lo: the good old Washington Post! And what about The Failing New York Times? Truly failing. Here’s page three:
Uh. Page four?
Nope. The New York Fucking Times doesn’t pop up until page five. Ahead of it: Lifezette; Talking Points Memo; The Blaze; The Daily Caller; something called ntknetwork; constitution.com; GOP.com; GatewayPundit; the aptly named NewsBusters; TownHall.com; and, kings of kings, Breitbart and InfoWars.
And when I googled the search term the night of May 31, as I’m writing this, it’s even worse. The Washington Post, which had a page two hit on May 29, is now at the bottom of page four.
Now, to state the obvious, the way those results are ordered isn’t exactly organic. Alexa ranks the NYT at 120 globally; WaPo at 190. Now, what about the illustrious townhall.com, which had not one but two hits on page one? It’s ranked at 9,109. In other words, those first four pages (four full pages of synchronized bullshit) are evidence of a massive and centrally managed strategic misinformation campaign being waged on your brain.
These dozens of sites are all peddling the same lie with articles published at the same time. So if you wondered whether there really was collusion and wanted to dig into the Googs to get your story straight, you’d be overwhelmed by four fucking pages of what look like news sites telling you that even Democrats say there’s flat-out no evidence of collusion. So why the fuck, you ask, are we wasting our time and resources attacking poor, duly-elected President Trump on false pretenses?
But again, the truth of this statement is trickier. No? Funnily enough, even these crackpot websites agree. Here are a few screenshots. If you read closely (which they’re betting you won’t) they all include the proper, honest caveats: no evidence YET; no one says they’ve SEEN evidence; etc. I’ve highlighted them here so you can get a feel for their strategic invisibility: you don’t notice the quiet spot for all the noise around it.
See? You’d either miss this caveat altogether, or you’d forget about it or write it off as meaningless or some kind of error. It’s so small, after all. This is completely forgivable: It’s a human vulnerability. I exhibit it. Everyone does. We want to be right. We trust our brains. We believe in ourselves, in our capacity to execute sound, independent judgment. But this is the very thing that’s being strategically exploited on a truly massive scale. This is a scheme to generate an overwhelming amount of misinformation, not just to combat a more nuanced truth, but to marginalize the truth, to weaken it, to BURY it underneath your own misplaced convictions about yourself.
We’re being flattered into stupidity. Here’s how it works.
How The SEOsage Is Made
First: Create content that subtly masks the truth.
Second: Shape that content into something people will share.
Third: Make it identical, and make a ton of it.
Fourth: Flood the internet with that content.
Fifth: Flood the internet with that content.
Six: Flood the fucking internet with that content.
The Google algorithm orders its search results, among other ways, by popular keywords used, publish date, and how many other links point to your site. You can do things to max out your keyword SEO, like I did in my last job, but the results we’re seeing here, their consistency, the thoroughness of their victory, and the standardization of the messaging all requires a well-funded, well-coordinated effort. Ask any digital marketing expert: This is an organization of writers and data geeks who are paid handsomely to spend all day churning out content, pointing readers from one site to another, and using social media bots as vectors to beam this misinformation out to micro-targeted demographics.
It’s a truly amazing operation. Time Magazine did an outstanding piece of reporting on this quite recently. So did The Guardian, here. Those pieces will scare the shit out of you. If they don’t, I’m afraid you’re an unwitting casualty of this war.
Why aren’t Democrats paying people to do this kind of thing with the truth? No idea. None. They can do it, just like that other company crushed us, but they haven’t learned.
How it works? Begin with some research. Find out which keywords people are using most frequently to dig up the kinds of stories you want to warp and feed them. Words like evidence; Trump; collusion; Comey; Clapper; Yates; Russia; etc. Then create an alternate narrative that deflects from the mainstream news and that can work independently of time: One you can bring back whenever you need it. Some examples: Benghazi; emails; Butobama.
Now, importantly, we need to make it highly shareable. Why do people tell other people things? Because they want to inform them, meaning ultimately they want to feel and look smart. You can flatter people into thinking they’re smart by offering “new” information that “the other side” is hiding or not covering at all. You can flatter them into ignorance in the name of independence, flatter them into stupidity in the name of being smart.
That kind of content, as proven, will spread like wildfire.
Now sync that messaging across a shit-ton of “news” sites. Link to each other. Max out that SEO. Drop a ton of money into adsense. Create as much synchronized content around your keywords as possible. Then publish. Then update and publish again. And again. And again.
Because time also matters.
Take one of those townhall.com page one hits, for instance. As mentioned earlier, I first noticed this bullshit on May 29. I’m writing this at about 10:30 p.m.-ish on May 31, yet this search result shows that the townhall.com article about the evidence of collusion is now only one day old. Here’s a screenshot of the same search terms, current time and date up at the top. Behold! James Clapper has become unstuck in time:
Why do these stories keep showing up? Well, they’re not exactly the same stories. These sites are so shitty and unpopular that the stories would drop off almost immediately if left to their own devices. So the sites must continually update/rewrite/tweak/republish again and again so the Google algorithm thinks they’re new. (Google also prioritizes newness.)
And look: James Clapper’s testimony was weeks ago, yet these articles read like they’re breaking a new story. And they’re only a few hours old. The Post and the Times, however, aren’t spending their resources on this stuff. They have responsibilities to keep up with the real news. And so do we, as citizens. But these psycho-dipshit crawlspaces don’t have that burden, and they’re betting you don’t want it, either.
I want to remind you, at the end of this technical stuff, that we’re talking about something critical: How our brains work determines how our tribes are formed and behave, which determines how our society functions, or doesn’t.
Because check this out: Who do these weapons target? These sites are havens for people who already support Trump or who already hate the left. The psychological weapon of misinformation is therefore perhaps unique in that it’s intended primarily for use against your “allies,” to further entrench or indoctrinate them in your camp.
The result? The American psyche is being transformed. Truthfully, it already has been. We’ve entered a new political, philosophical, social, and cultural era. People don’t seem to understand yet, or aren’t willing to face it, but reality is completely malleable. Even in America.
After all, the only things that can be true to you (that is, capital-T “True”) is what you choose to believe about the world around you. You get to make that choice yourself. For some of us it’s a freedom. Others a burden. Trump’s crew and the right wing elite have understood this for years. Hell, the Russian people have lived with this for decades. We’re no match. We’re soft targets. All a propagandist has to do is link our identity to our beliefs. Once that’s accomplished, your identity anchors your beliefs. But then you start to see there’s this huge web of believers out there, and a common identity begins to shape up. A tribe emerges. Never mind that half of them are robots: You’re not giving up who you are. And so if your beliefs define who you are, as a person and as a member of a tribe, there’s nothing in the world short of an existential cataclysm that will ever, ever get you to change your mind.
If you don’t want to.
Which reminds me: Ironically enough, these sheep sites bleating that there’s no evidence of collusion are themselves evidence of collusion. Buried somewhere in that Time Magazine article is a real scoop: The FBI is investigating Robert Mercer’s data firm, Cambridge Analytica, along with Breitbart News for colluding with Russia to spread misinformation and manipulate the hearts and minds of micro-targeted Americans during the 2016 campaign. The question here is, how do we react? Will we snap out of it and be able to change course, once this truth is out there on the table? Or will this truth be so painful, so humiliating, so devastating to our identities that it sends us running straight for the warmth of the barrels gunning us down?