A recent New Time Times article about Google’s practice of generating ad revenue via ‘promoted’ search results (“How Climate Change Deniers Rise to the Top in Google Searches” 29 December 2017) had a surprising and disquieting ending about the prospect of internet censorship.
It was a quote from Jeff Harvey of “Internet Blogs, Polar Bears, and Climate-Change Denial by Proxy” (Bioscience, 29 November 2017) fame:
“Jeffrey Harvey, a population ecologist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, recently published a study on blogs that deny the well-documented impacts of climate change and Arctic ice loss on polar bears. He said that contrarian ads on web search results, which many users considered to be neutral territory, were especially problematic.
If you search for ‘global warming’ and ‘polar bear,’ you’ll often get bombarded with sites that are ignoring the scientific evidence,” he said. “I think this is something that search engines need to address.” [my bold]
First, how naive does a user of Google have to be to consider Google ads (which are clearly marked as such, see examples above and below) to be “neutral territory”? Only people with an agenda (something to sell, an idea to promote, a plea for donations) pay to guarantee a spot on Google’s first few pages of search returns, so the presence of clearly marked ads require Google users to develop a vigilant “buyer beware” attitude. I note also he cleaned up his “denier” pejorative slightly for the NYT, something he didn’t bother with for his Bioscience paper.
Now, to the point. Harvey’s comment in the NYT’s article conflates purchased search results for ‘polar bear’ (ads used exclusively, by the way, by consensus polar bear expert supporters, especially Amstrup’s Polar Bears international) with “contrarian” content offered without strings or gimmicks on some blogs — by which he means primarily Polar Bear Science and those who link to it.
Here’s a few questions to think about, and for journalists to ask: Was an original goal of the Harvey et al. paper to give Google and other search engines a bit of quasi-scientific evidence (there being no actual science evident in the Harvey et al paper, let alone any bioscience) to back up a program of censoring blogs and websites that do not conform to the consensus opinion on polar bear survival, sea ice, or anthropogenic global warming espoused by Harvey and colleagues?
Was an aim of these 14 co-authors to not only keep the internet-searching public from reading what Harvey et al. claim to be incorrect information offered by a qualified scientist but in the process, to also deprive that person of cash revenue from donations and/or book sales? Along with me at Polar Bear Science and the books I offer for sale (see the sidebar), would satirist Mark Steyn and his merchandise be targeted because of a seemingly never-ending legal tussle with Harvey et al. co-author Michael Mann, even though Steyn is not on the Harvey et al. list of unapproved blogs and websites?
Were Jeff Harvey’s remarks simple social commentary — or a threat?
Harvey, J.A., van den Berg, D., Ellers, J., Kampen, R., Crowther, T.W., Roessingh, P., Verheggen, B., Nuijten, R. J. M., Post, E., Lewandowsky, S., Stirling, I., Balgopal, M., Amstrup, S.C., and Mann, M.E. 2017. Internet blogs, polar bears, and climate-change denial by proxy. Bioscience. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/bix133