Ads on Google have placed pro-fracking propaganda at the top of Google search results and into the middle of an important discussion on the environmental impacts of fracking. The practice raises important questions about the role of search engines in the new media world.
For more than 17 months, Robert Howarth, an ecology professor at Cornell, has had a Google problem. Howarth is the chief author of an important paper on the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial method of obtaining natural gas. The paper concludes that the practice is not a clean way to extract domestic energy, as many allege, and has an even greater carbon footprint than coal. The paper's conclusions poke holes in some of the most common talking points used by supporters of fracking and made major headlines, including a large and prominently placed article in The New York Times in April 2011. Howarth, along with one of his co-authors, Anthony Ingraffea, and activist actor Mark Ruffalo, were ranked by Time as among the 100 "people who matter" in 2011.
The paper also got the attention of the gas lobby. Most notably, America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA). Soon after the paper was released, Howarth and others noticed a disturbing phenomenon on Google. Every time Professor Howarth's name was placed into a Google search engine, the first thing that appeared was an ad from ANGA, devoted strictly to hampering the credibility of Howarth's research. The page was listed as an ad but at a quick glance, it simply looked like the top search result. As of the time of this writing, late October, the ad still displayed that way.
The ad, and the ability of industry to use Google ads for these purposes, raises important questions about the role that Google and other prominent search engines will have on important political and scientific discourse. Do Google and other companies have a responsibility to the public to consider the way their search engine can be used to advance the interests of certain industries? This method naturally empowers wealthy industries to dominate Google search results given their massive resources and vested financial interests in the way in which science is discussed in the public sphere. And the company does ultimately answer to shareholders and not to the public at large. Given this reality, what can we expect from Google and other corporate giants of the Internet world when it comes to providing valuable information that serves the public?