Astroturf or grassroots? We suspect astroturf! Image source: Damsels in Distress in Video Games Youtube video.
Sometimes my flying monkeys (the news agents I use to search for news on the Web) get oddly specific. Case in point: there was a time about a year ago when my "Damsels in distress" news agent search was bringing back nothing but articles about Whit Stillman's movie "Damsels in Distress." Which was a disappointment to me, since the distress the damsels in the movie are in is a very genteel form of distress having to do with romantic disappointments, mostly, not ropes and gags. But it was understandable: the movie title was spot on for my news agent search.
And for most of the past year, my news agent search for "kinky" would produce very little if it weren't for the antics of Texas musician/politician Kinky Friedman, and the musical "Kinky Boots."
And it's happening again with my "damsels in distress" keyword search, for the last two days the ONLY results they have returned has been news about a new video put out by Feminist Frequency, Damsels In Distress: Part 1 - Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. I mean, yesterday I got nine hits from Damsel in Distress, and ALL of them were about the Feminist Frequency video. And while it's a WAAAAY better result than the Whit Stillman movie, as you can see from the vidcap, it makes me suspicious.
The video is well made and interesting, I have no beef with it, really. Hosted by Anita Sarkeesian, it starts with a brief history of the damsel in distress in stories, and moves on to how video games use it, which is to say, badly. No surprise, the bulk of video game stories have been noted for their lack of imagination, and using a woman as the bait to move the story along (and nothing else) is a very common technique. I kept waiting for the narrative to sink into "men bad! sex bad! Pretty women bad!" but it never did. Maybe in Part 2, I dunno. Mostly it was a very thorough analysis of how DiDs are used in video games.
It's how I got the story that bothers me. I would like to think that the Google news agents comb the web impartially and bring back only the most relevant results from websites big and small. But I just don't believe it. With all the millions of sites on the web, the ONLY results I'm getting are about the Feminist Frequency video? And before that, the Whit Stillman movie? And in the case of kinky, the musical? How likely is that?
And the thing that makes me DOUBLY suspicious, is that the news agent search results that are oddly specific are all for things that have money and/or political connectedness behind them. Kinky Boots, big musical, got marketers. Damsels in Distress, major movie release, marketers and promoters, you bet. Kinky Friedman, politician/musician, some kind of political muscle. Feminist Frequency, also some political muscle.
Why it's almost as if the Google news agents are being bought off or influenced somehow. Or more likely, that they are visiting certain favored sites or giving more weight to certain favored sites and pop up stories when those sites and not when more obscure sites (like mine for instance!) put up an article or post that is relevant to the topic the news agents are searching for.
I am sure it is the hope of every ink-stained wretch on the Web, of which I am surely one, that Google news agents are objective searchers for relevance, searching out the very best stuff on the Web. But I strongly suspect that the Google news agents use a very similar metric to Google search, looking for the most linked-to sites. Which create a tier of sites that are favored, after a while. And a lot of sites that are disfavored.
What's more, you have to wonder to what extent the media manipulators are using this to get their favored stories in front of potential readers/viewers. Because they can't be happy with the Internet. They've taken over traditional media to such an extent that most of it is putty in their hands. There's a REASON Consumer Reports won't take ads, it's that ads are corrupting, in every publication that takes them. There is no quid pro quo, that would be far too clumsy. But favors get done, publications that run ads about movies are apt to review those movies, regardless of merit. And the same goes for books, or cars or foods or whatever.
That's why publishers can pretty much KNOW what books will make the New York Times bestseller list. It's not merit, it's marketing. Don't believe me? Think "Snookie." You know, the reality show star known for her general vapidness whose book made the Times bestseller list. Think it made it on merit? It was sheer media marketing muscle. And that's how most products become successful, a big corporation puts a lot of marketing muscle behind a product, and voila! It succeeds.
A product, idea or political movement that is successful based purely on corporate/political money power is called an "astroturf" product/idea/movement. The phrase has its origins in politics, where political movements that came from the people, from the bottom up, so to speak was called a "grassroots" movement. Whether you agree or disagree with a particular grassroots movement, everyone agrees they represent the genuine feelings and interests of their supporters.
A good example of a commercial grassroots phenomenon would be "Fifty Shades of Grey." It became an ebook bestseller without the attentions of any corporations or marketers. The Twilight fandom loved the book, bought it in droves, and made it a success, all by their lonesome, with romance readers who had switched to ebooks because sexier and more private helping, also sans marketing power. When Random House bought the rights to publish Fifty Shades of Grey they were buying the rights to a grassroots bestseller, which is why the prices was so high. And it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
The term "astroturf" is a counterpoint to "grassroots" and describes a political movement that is strictly the creation of moneyed corporate or political interests. The most well-known current example is the Tea Party, which was created with money provided by the Koch Brothers and their conservative cronies. The Tea Party was originally conceived of as an anti-tax party, but it grew beyond those boundaries to be a ragingly anti-tax, hyperconservative group that has primaried regular Republican candidates, only to find that the many hyper-conservative Tea Partiers cannot win an election that involves non-Republican voters.
The astroturf Tea Party, in short, developed grassroots elements and they took over the Tea Party and now the Koch Brothers and their babies are not all that happy about their precious Tea Party.
It's no secret that marketers have been studying the Web looking for ways to make it as money-friendly and controllable as possible. And by going with their favored-site linking strategy Google is playing into their hands, perhaps not unintentionally, as Google is all about the money, too. Basically the Internet was ALL grassroots when it started. Just a bunch of computer geeks having fun with porn and a few other things.
But as the Web has become more and more popular, with every home wired and on the Web, and many workplaces as well, the marketer and the promoters of all stripe are looking hungrily at all those eyeballs and working on ways of capturing them.
And when I see Google news agents apparently unable to find anything but a single story in a variety of sites, on what is a fairly broad and common topic ("kinky" "damsel in distress") I can't help but suspect that the marketers have astroturfed Google's news agents, y'know?
I do have a solution, for those who are interested. I keep track of the keywords that people use when they find my site via Google analytics. Often it's an image search, often for a celebrity. But far from always. I get hits from the terms "slave auction" "Roman slave auction" "naked slave girl sale" etc. And one of the things I do is run those keywords in an image search myself, to see who else is getting hits from those keywords.
I have found a lot of great sites that way (Crueltimur's, for example) that are not exactly Jezebel, Slate, The Stir, Gawker, or other Usual Suspects found by my news agents.
So a word to the wise: Google news agents may have been snared by the astroturfers. Seek alternative sources, lest you be snared, too.