“I googled ‘Fat Barbie’, and this picture is nowhere to be found”, posted user Basedputin on the online forum Reddit. Attached to the post, was a picture of actress slash Hillary Clinton-supporter Amy Schumer.
The post was concluded with a cryptical: “you know what to do.” So what did people do? They upvoted the Schumer picture, so it would show up in Google Images when searching for ‘Fat Barbie’. Welcome to the wonderful world of subreddit r/The_Donald.
During the American election of 2016, a lot has been done to sabotage the opponent’s candidate. An example of this is fake news that was spread to influence American voters. Facebook got the blame for the large impact of this fake news, because it’s algorithms were accelerating their diffusion. A subject that has not been discussed as much, is the influence of upvoting certain pictures in Google Images to hurt the opponents political campaign; so called Google Bombing.
What is upvoting?
On Reddit, posts are not shown chronologically, instead they are sorted on most popular. The more ‘upvotes’ a post get, the higher it will be on the page.
Bombing Google Images How do you change what people see?
The following graphic shows the people who reddit-users mentioned a couple of times in their calls for action. Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton is mentioned most often. But also Trump has been mentioned a lot. Instead of connecting him to negative words, reddit-users initiated to upvote his pictures with words as “hero” or “gentleman”.
People targeted, connected with the words used to link them to in Google Image Search.
The bigger the blue bulb, the more a person is targeted. The orange bulbs show which words were used to offend of praise a certain person. Let’s have a closer look at some of these people.
Amy Schumer has openly stated she’d leave the US if Trump were to become president. She later claimed this was a joke in a post on her Instagram page, which prompted Reddit users to target her on various instances.
The references to Barbie are due to the fact Schumer’s cast to play the title role in a Barbie film.
Alec Baldwin reached a lot of people with his Trump impersonations on Saturday Night Live. Although a lot of people seemed to be entertained by this, Donald Trump was not in the least. Unsurprisingly, followers of r/The_Donald weren’t very pleased with the mocking of their idol – they used the SNL broadcast to target Baldwin on a very personal matter.
Some time earlier, Baldwin had been in the news quite negatively for an abusive call he made to his 11 y.o. daughter, calling her a “thoughtless little pig.” Trump supporters used this to negatively portray Baldwin and target him on a very sensitive issue.
One of Baldwins many Trump impersonations on Saturday Night Live.
Just tried watching Saturday Night Live – unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can't get any worse. Sad
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 4, 2016
Trump’s reaction to the SNL episode on Twitter.
Are they simply copycats? New grassroots activism
Are the Trump supporters on Reddit just copycats, or are they actually real, grassroots activists? This question has often been neglected, because of the assumption Trump supporters are just brainwashed followers that can’t speak for themselves. Research results, on the contrary, point in a different direction.
Some examples show that there indeed is a connection between the online posts of Trump and the call for upvoting. An example is found in the case of Brandon Victor Dixon.
“DATE RAPIST. Why isn’t this the first thing that pops up when I google “date rapist”?” Was a post on Reddit on the 22nd of November. Brandon Victor Dixon is an actor in the play Hamilton. On the 19th of November vice-president Mike Pence came to his play. After the show, Dixon gave a speech that was directly addressed to Pence in which he critiques Trump.
The 20th of November Trump reacted on twitter with the following post:
The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2016
Reddit-user Hotcheesepizza labelled the actor two days later as “date rapist”. This specific instance points to a work way in which Trump inspires his online following to target people he points out via his own Twitter page. First, we have the speech, second Trump’s redeeming and last but not least the online trolls start their bullying.
But a far larger amount of examples show that it was a news item that triggered the calls for action, and not Trumps own statements. To show how this works, we have made the following timeline. Here, you can see all the insults made per day from April 2016 – January 2017 we found on the r/The_Donald subreddit. Click on any of them to find the specific news item that’s incited the Redditers to target them with praise or insults.
The way the Reddit trolls work, can be seen as some sort of grassroots activism, in which they actively seek out who to target and work together to pinpoint them to a negative public image.
NB: This is not a finished research, because it does not include all calls for action on Reddit, just the ones found with the search term ‘Google’. Due to the limited time we had, we did our best for a first indication in the way the r/The_Donald users actively promote their leader. The project conducted here, however, can be seen as a good first inquiry into this subject.
What does Google do?
The fact that it is done so openly and publicly, means that there’s probably not a direct punishment or consequence for these trolls. It has been spotted before by the media. The Independent wrote a piece addressing the issue as early as October 2016, in which they asked Google for a response. As of January 2017, none has been given.
Could it be Google is not aware of the practice of Google Bombing? One couldn’t be more wrong. The practice has been used since the early 2000’s, when it was focussed on the primary search results, not on the images. The most prominent example is that of George Bush during his 2004 presidential election. Searching for “miserable failure” in Google at the time, would prompt a site with George Bush’s White House biography. Although Google did alter its algorithm for the searches in the site search engine, Google Image Bombing is a practice that will still work as if this day.
Google must actually be aware of this misuse of their possibility to upvote pictures for certain words. Facebook has been accused of the spreading of fake news; why hasn’t Google been scorned for not taking acting against the bombing?
Reddit seems to be more active in taking action against pro-Trump Google Bombing. Editing and moderating posts in Reddit is a sensitive issue, since its users are extremely sensitive to what they see as censorship. In December, a Reddit moderator posted an extensive explanation for why the moderators did remove content they considered ‘trolling’. The main reason for their actions is ‘#PizzaGate’ in which an online conspiracy prompted an armed man to raid a pizza place in Washington.