It's the tale of two attempts at "digital astroturf" or "online grassroots activism" or whatever you want to call it. Regardless of the label, there's an apparent media double standard at work: attempts to rig prominent online information sources for political gain is only worth reporting if the perpetrators are conservatives.
The blogosphere - though not the mainstream media - has been buzzing about a proposed campaign by a Daily Kos blogger to game Google's search algorithm to promote stories unfriendly to the Tea Party and the GOP.
Contrast the media's silence with the buzz over an alleged attempt by a conservative group on the aggregator Digg to "bury" stories on that site. That plot got coverage from ABC News, the Atlantic, the San Francisco Chronicle, even across the pond at the UK Guardian - not to mention from scores of liberal blogs.
Tellingly, all the media outlets above left out any ideological labels for the far-left blog AlterNet, which exposed the Digg plot. The blog was referred to only as an "online magazine." It's hard left slant was not mentioned.
And AlterNet's findings were dutifully reported as the scandal the blog's proprietors apparently believed it was.
None of those outlets - indeed, no mainstream media outlet whatsoever - has reported on last week's unearthed campaign by a few Kossacks to manipulate Google's search results in an effort to promote stories embarrassing to GOP candidates.
But it wasn't just a single user promoting this campaign. Official Daily Kos resources were provided to aid users in gaming Google's search algorithm. Chris Bowers, who also runs the liberal blog Open Left, wrote the following on Friday:
The goal of Grassroots SEO is to get as many undecided voters as possible to read the most damaging news article about the Republican candidate for Congress in their district. It is based on two simple premises:
1. One of the most common political activities people take online is to use search engines, mainly Google, to find information on candidates. (For more information, see the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s report on 2008 online political engagement.)
2. These results of these searches are always in flux based upon hyperlinks anyone posts anywhere on the Internet, including message board comments and social networking sites (but not email).
As a result of this, not only is it possible for us to use our hyperlinks to impact what people find when they search for information on candidates, but we would be foolish not to do so in a way that benefited our preferred candidates. We are already impacting search engine rankings whenever we post any hyperlink anywhere, so we need to make sure the way we use hyperlinks helps result in our preferred political outcomes.
Bowers went on to provide detailed instructions on how to undertake this campaign. He concluded:
When you find an article, post its headline and URL either in the comments or send it over email to SEO@dailykos.com. Make sure the name of both the district and the GOP candidate is in the headline or the comment, or the subject line of the email. For example, if you found an article about the Republican candidate in Florida’s 25th congressional district, the comment title or subject line would be "FL-25, David Rivera."
That’s it. Once we get the articles we can start working to push them up search engine rankings. We need to launch the campaign early next week, so let’s gather these articles as quickly as we can.
So this is a concerted effort not just to promote articles and web items friendly to the liberal agenda - as was the effort at Digg, for that group's politics. No, this is an attempt to influence elections by rigging Google searches with what's popularly known as a "Google bomb."
Considering the media's apparent interest in digital astroturf - as evinced by its reporting on the Digg Patriots, as the conservative group on that site is called - it seems that they would also be reporting on this much larger and more overt attempt to rig a far more poplar website for political gain.
The media silence speaks volumes.