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Google and the Propaganda Model

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Trying to formulate this into an abstract for the PCA/ACA conference…


Google and the Propaganda Model

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described the Propaganda Model media companies use to create message/ideology. According to Chomsky and Herman, and later elaborated by Robert McChesney, conglomeration, hypercommercialism, and concentration drive media producers/distributors and perpetuate, or create new, capitalist systems of oppression and message-making (1). As with many aspects of the new global economy, the definitions and applications of the propaganda model need to be expanded to understand how new digital media fit within this frame.

Google ranks among the most profitable corporations, and is the most highly valued media company, in the World (2). Like many of the most successful web applications, its business model differs greatly from traditional old media. The company doesn’t spend money on adverting itself outright and has created a program that targets ads to specific user inqueries in response to searches or e-mails, rather than seeking out specific demographics of users. Google’s unofficial motto is “Don’t be evil,” thereby asking users to hold it to a higher standard than other monopolistic corporations like Microsoft or News Corp. Given the revolutionary spirit behind the “Don’t be evil” motto, a spirit that is echoed by most user-generated content technologies and applications, it is all the more important to view Google critically and be aware of how the company operates within the propaganda model, often serving its corporate interests and perpetuating a political ideology on a global scale.

1st Filter: Size, Ownership, & Profit Orientation

Worldwide Search Engine Market Share, November 2008. From Accessed 3 December 2008

Google dominates the global search market and took in over $16 billion USD in 2007 (Wikipedia). Google’s profitability has allowed it to buy out competitors like YouTube and DoubleClick, as well as create services to broaden its reach, like the Android mobile phone Operating system (to compete with Microsoft’s OS on the Blackberry and the iPhone OS). Since Google’s market is global in scale it is able to put more resources into influencing policy: they lobbied the US Federal Communications Commission to add an openness clause for mobile liscense attribution so that the Android OS might be more attractive to cellular providers (4). Google also settled a class action lawsuit brought against them by the Authors Guild and American Association of Publishers that allows Google Book Search to distribute digital copies of copyrighted books, putting complete control of what books are scanned and distributed in Google’s hands. Google actively pushes policy-makers and the legal system into accepting its agenda.Through its size and wealth Google is able to filter out competition.

2nd Filter:  Advertising

Google created its own advertising provider, AdSense, and purchased DoubleClick, a world leader in display (banner) advertising. AdSense uses an auction system so that, ostensibly, anyone can create an ad, determine what keywords cause the ad to show up, and thus target consumers according to their search queries. However, Google determines when ads show up so if the highest bidder didn’t bid enough a search might turn up no ad results (5). Popular keywords will attract more advertising capital, filtering out competitive voices, while unpopular keywords might see no ads appear despite ads existing. Thus Google actually filters out the competitive voices it deems unprofitable.

3rd Filter: Sourcing

Google’s business is managing the flow of information. On the Web we can create sites for whatever we want and information is not necessarily sourced from governments or corporations, as it often is under the old media propaganda model. In many ways the democratization of information through tools like Google’s pagerank system, which determines the hierarchy of information based on popularity, allows Google to escape national-based propaganda models and operate globally. While Google does censor search results in China, in most cases it creates a free market for information.

However, as Google Books Search shows, an English-language bias and American-imperialist tendency might be seen in how information is distributed via Google and its ancillary search engines. In the global political economy Google often creates a distinctly American voice and filters out nation-states and their local interests.

Some have argued that Google itself is serving as a source for newsmakers, becoming a corporate source itself.

4th Filter: Flak and the Enforcers

As Google has grown, so too have the voices of those critical of its practices. After it became clear that an attempted merger with Yahoo! would be met with intense scrutiny by the US Justice Department Google withdrew from the attempt despite arguing it was perfectly legal. Google settled with American publishers rather than fight an antitrust and copyright lawsuit over its Book Search. By avoiding legal confrontation and spinning settlements into positive news-stories Google is able to maintain its image as a gigantic media company that “isn’t evil,” that isn’t morally offensive to users despite monopolistic tendencies.

5th Filter: Control Mechanisms

For Google’s global digital economy the threat-control mechanisms aren’t political but economic. Terrorists and communists aren’t the enemies Google wants to mobilize the public against; the competition is. Google’s shimmering public image, maintained by its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ motto, high levels of transparency, and opening of access to tools and applications for users, allow it to paint the pay-based old media competition as threats to the digital revolution. If Google isn’t allowed to acquire Yahoo!, they argue, then Microsoft, a “closed” (and therefore more “evil”) company shouldn’t be allowed to either based on virtue.


Google’s role as a media-conglomerate on the web, expanding to cover new media (YouTube, Gmail, Google office applications, Picasa) and access (the Chrome browser, Android OS, financing other browsers to make Google the default search tool) in addition to its core profit-producing search/ad system, allow the company to expand the political economy from a national to a global scale. On this level, the ‘propaganda’ produced is an ideology against nation-state autonomy and old media methods (namely the hypercommercialism but, notably, not the conglomeration and concentration of power) but with a Western (American) bias. In the global digital economy everything from libraries (Book Search) to energy policy (The Green Energy Initiative) are controlled by the corporation, not by publicly-backed political institutions.


1. McChesney, Robert. Rich Media Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

2. Dai, Xiudian. “Google.” New Political Economy. September 2007, 433-442

3. Herman, Edward, and Noam Chomsky. “A Propaganda Model.” Media and Cultural Studies Key Works Revised Edition. Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006. 258-294.

4. “Everything You Wanted To Know About Google But Were Afraid To Ask.” faberNovel. December 2008. [Accessed 3 December 2008]

5. “Google Violates Its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto.” Intelligence Squared US., 26 November 2008. [Accessed 28 November 2008].


Written by Tyler Baber

December 3, 2008 at 8:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Walk Up The Parkway

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Written by Tyler Baber

December 3, 2008 at 8:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Google and New Media Search Engines

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All about Google

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: google technology)

Even on the web there are “old media” models with distinct differences from the “new media” models found in the user-generated content technological revolution. If the User-generated content model views individuals as producers, rather than simply consumers, then web sites operating in this model will put the needs of the user ahead of the goals of driving consumption.

Yahoo! might be seen as an “old media”search engine, adding features to its homepage so that it resembles a mall more than a library reference desk. Contrast this with Google, whose sparse homepage invites the user to view the site as a tool rather than a content-producer:

Screenshots of Yahoo! and Google's homepage changes
Image by John Maeda, September 5 2005: [Accessed 2 December 2008]

Google and Search Engines as Message Producers

Content production and distribution, Stuart Hall points out, is inextricably tied to constructing “the message,” or meaning/ideology (1). A key difference between the Web and traditional media is that “producing content” on the Web is itself an abstract notion: Google, one of the most successful new media companies produces practically no original content but instead directs users to preexisting content through its search capabilities.  Google’s official goal is “to organize the world’s information to make it universally accessible,” (2) which it seeks to do through indexing “readily available information on the internet” (3). Google, and most search engines in general, differ from traditional “old media” content distribution models in that, due to algorithms that respond to search queries by presenting the most popular results first, the engine’s promoting allows it to abdicate from encoding meaning into the results. The results presented are the result of previous users’ determining the popularity of pages, these sites argue. Whether this is a true position, whether Google-style search engines are free from ideology-production, is explored in greater depth here.

Google’s unofficial motto reflects the revolutionary promises some see in the Web, especially in user-generated content technologies: “Don’t be evil” (4).“Don’t be evil” is an extreme ideological statement but as a dominant producer in the Web economy Google demands more critical review. As the company extends its service to new global markets the “impact of Googlisation upon the nation-state, and vice versa, is intrinsically linked to the control of information in cyberspace” (3). In his analysis of three separate cases of Google’s corporate reach coming up against government systems in France, the USA and China, Dai reviews how Google spreads its reach in ways “detrimental to the autonomy of nation-states” (3), while the nation-states react by attempting to protect their own interests.

Google and Governments

Google’s relationship with China has drawn criticism from many sources as Google complied with the Chinese government’s censorship policies. As Lewis explains in the Intelligence Squared US debate on the topic “Google Violates Its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto,”

If you Google “Tibetan independence” (in the US) you’ll get back pointers to some sites that advocate the freedom of Tibet from Chinese rule… But if you do it inside China, you won’t get references to [these same sites]… The world looks very different through the window that Google provides, in China, than through the window on the world that you have available to yourselves here (5).

Thus, Lewis and others argue, by complying with oppressive policies when it is in Google’s commercial interest the company is violating both its “Don’t be evil” motto as well as its goal to make all the world’s information accessible. This violation of the motto is all the more intriguing when coupled with other instances of Google’s interactions with nation-states: Google actively refused participation in a USA Department of Justice inquiry in the interest of “protecting users privacy” (and, by extension, its commercial interests); and the French government sought to establish a national search engine to protect its culture and economy from what it viewed as American imperialist tendencies. By working so actively to protect its commercial interest Google can be viewed through the propaganda model as representing “new tools of domination for achieving a familiar set of ends” (6).

Google Is Good?

The dominant view toward Google might be understood as “at its heart, a good company that provides extraordinary services to the public, and makes extraordinary amounts of information available to the public, and is working around the world to make information available” (5). Indeed as Google (and the Internet in general) has emerged as a tool connecting users to amounts of information unimaginable by old media, the prevailing concept has been that of a Digital Revolution, as opposed to Grazian’s argument that can perhaps be simplified as a “Digital continuation of status quo.” In a debate between six scholars and journalists on the topic “Google Violates Its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto,” even those arguing for the motion conceded that any evil on the part of Google is better understood in relation to the company’s stated goal, rather than through comparing Google to other companies that may act far more “evil.” In his final statement in the debate Randal Picker, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, said we should ask “when are they making a choice that we should understand to be one that benefits Google and hurts the market, hurts other participants in the market” (5), not necessarily whether Google as a whole is evil. For any argument against Google’s actions abetting the Chinese government’s censorship policies there exists another point saying Google’s very existence in China is a step toward democratizing information in the country (5). Likewise, where Jeanneny and Dai point to Google as an example of American-globalization of content/culture others see “increasing transparency and… personal autonomy” (5).


1. Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding.” Media and Cultural Studies Key Works Revised Edition. Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006. 163-173.

2.  “Corporate Information – Company Overview.” [Accessed 29 November 2008].

3 Dai, Xiudian. “Google.” New Political Economy. September 2007, 433-442.

4. “Google Investor Relations.” [Accessed 29 November 2008].

5. “Google Violates Its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto.” Intelligence Squared US., 26 November 2008. [Accessed 28 November 2008].

6. Grazian, David. “A Digital Revolution? A Reassessment of New Media and Cultural Production in the Digital Age.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Jan 2005: 209-222.

Written by Tyler Baber

December 3, 2008 at 8:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized