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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…

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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 http://marketshare.hitslink.com/ 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.

Conclusions

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.


References

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. http://www.slideshare.net/misteroo/all-about-google-presentation?type=powerpoint. [Accessed 3 December 2008]

5. “Google Violates Its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto.” Intelligence Squared US. NPR.org, 26 November 2008. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97216369 [Accessed 28 November 2008].

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Written by Tyler Baber

December 3, 2008 at 8:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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