The far right is dominating the information wars through "keyword signaling"

It's an old story: someone searches Google for a common keyword -- "jews," "women," "black people" -- and gets back a bunch of far-right conspiracist/genocidal garbage; Google gets embarrassed, twiddles some search-weighting knobs, and the results change.

This is a problem, if you're a dark search-engine optimizer trying to hasten the end-times race-war. You put all this effort into link-farming and other sleazy tactics, only to have your work wiped out at the stroke of a keyboard.

But there's a more enduring way to dominate the information landscape: "keyword signaling." That's when you dream up a conspiratorial term that no one else is using (think: "crisis actor") and then totally own the information space around that term, so that anyone who searches on it finds your confirming information. Then you get your media-political machine to spread the term around -- say, by getting Devin Nunes or Sean Hannity to talk it up -- and the potential supporters for your conspiracy who are downstream of their rhetoric search for the term and only find information that bolsters their case. In the absence of disconfirming information, their theories seem credible. And since the "reality-based community" isn't bothering to search on these nonsense terms, they rarely, if ever, generate the kind of PR crisis that will prompt Google to put its thumb on the search-results scales to change the kinds of results those terms generate.

The far right is locked in an information-domination Cold War with the big platforms. From Boris Johnson's tactical use of nonsense to push down unflattering search results to gaming the refs at Facebook, the right understands that making their fringe ideology seem central requires the successful domination of the information sphere. After all, people who believe that the vast majority of the world deserve to be subjugated are always going to be in a minority (by definition!), so you need a lot of sock puppets to complement your network of dark-money thinktanks and blitzvertising to make yourself seem numerous enough to be relevant.

Francesca Tripodi form Data & Society studies the use of keyword signaling by the right, and has published the definitive research on the subject.

In a Wired op-ed, Tripodi shows how current events are being shaped by this simple tactic, whose practitioners are firmly entrenched in right wing media, Congress, the Senate and the White House itself.

To demonstrate how this works in politics, I Googled a few key phrases used in both of Nunes’ speeches. The results demonstrate how politicians and pundits can exploit data voids to create ideological information silos. During each hearing, Nunes describes “the Russia collusion hoax.” When you search for “collusion hoax,” the links returned support the position that investigations into the president are bogus. The top links are from a story in The New York Post published just last week that Dems are trying to block Barr’s probe into the “Russian collusion hoax” and a link to Amazon to purchase a book titled The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump, by Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett.

Strategic signaling also drew attention to what the Mueller report did not focus on. On June 12, Nunes noted that the report had not procured any “useful information on figures who played key roles in the investigation such as Joseph Mifsud,” a Maltese academic and figure in the George Papadopoulos case, “or the Democrat paid operative, former spy Christopher Steele,” the British intelligence officer behind the now notorious pee tape allegations. In the days following Nunes’ remarks, the search returns were primarily conservative content published anywhere between two weeks to 12 minutes before Nunes’ speech. In addition to traditional conservative sources like Fox News, Washington Examiner, and National Review, there are also digital-first sources like the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire, as well as stories posted from more dubious publications like the Epoch Times.

Devin Nunes and the Power of Keyword Signaling [Francesca Tripodi/Wired]