“Google Bombs as a weapon in the hands of the counterpublics: The case of /r/fullcommunism”
During the mapping of the subreddit ‘full_communism’, a specific practice has been revealed, in which the community frequently engages with: Google bombs. Used by digital activists and counterpublics to demonstrate opposition, Google bombs can signify a new way of political participation within the Web. In this paper, the phenomenon is discussed within the context of /r/fullcommunism, in order to record the complicity of political motives in correlation to humour in digital platforms.
In the era of digitalization, it has often been observed that concepts have their meanings altered, as the context transcribes to the digital world. From communities to advertisement and from activism to ‘the Internet of things’, society seems to replacing physicality and movement with the use of the Web. At the same time, the gradually greater involvement of users in the creation and distribution of content through the years, resulting in the Web 2.0, has provided low-cost, free of access abilities to millions of people around the world. It can be claimed that ‘democratization’ of content is nowadays reaching magnitudes never-known before and users, when concentrated in communities and unite for their mutual ideologies or beliefs, have the power to manipulate the media and define issues beyond cyberspace, such as the Presidential Elections.
The popular web page ‘Reddit’ claims to be ‘the front page of the internet’. Working as an aggregation platform since 2005, when Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian founded it, Reddit hosts the ‘avant-garde’ of the internet, with a plethora of subcultures forming in subreddits of various content, such as /r/TheRedPill, a subreddit devoted to the rights of white, straight men fueled by misogyny, or /r/KotakuInAction, the transliteration of 4chan’s Gamergate, where gamers around the world share their hatred for political correctness (as expressed by Social Justice Warriors), feminism and the mainstream media. Governed by polyphony, different and opposed issues can be discussed within Reddit. It is particularly interesting that Reddit provides a ‘safe space’ for the infamous alt-right of Donald Trump, sexism and racism, as well as for the radical left of Lenin and the communist nostalgia to participate in discussions, create, share and spread satirical memes that more often than not work as propaganda of their rhetoric, or, simply put, to have fun.
For a research conducted during the New Media Research Methods Seminar in the University of Amsterdam, the activity of /r/fullcommunism was mapped. By extracting data concerning the content of the posts, the most common words used within the comments and the relations between this subreddit and the rest of the platform, the research team was able to identify an irregularity that led to the conclusion of a specific action, regularly practised by the community of /r/fullcommunism: Google bombs. The aim of this paper is to discuss the phenomenon of Google bombs as an action of a newly-found political participation, within the context of participatory cultures in Reddit’s platform. The /r/fullcommunism will be used as a case study, as it is a subreddit of political substance, to aid in conceptualising the phenomenon further. Taking into account that a qualitative sub-research with the method of interviews had been conducted to track down the motives of the moderators behind the construction of a Google bomb and the question ‘why’ had been answered, this paper aims to position the practice within the perspective of counterpublic actions and discuss it as an expression of a radical left subculture that is partially engaging in Google bombs “for the lulz” but that engagement is not lacking in political meaning. Whether these Google bombs were successful in the time of their conduction it is not a subject of immediate interest for the author. The main purpose of this paper is to discuss the political and activist motives that Google bombs may carry when executed by subcultures that act as counterpublics.
First noticed in 1999, before Google’s domination of the search engine machines and this phenomenon was generally called ‘search engines bombs’ (Buck, n.p.), Google bombs are defined as “the activity of designing Internet links that will bias search engine results to create an inaccurate impression of the search target”(Bar-Ilan, n.p.). In other words, it is the persistent attempt to manipulate Google’s search results by exploiting Google’s algorithms by replacing a specific term with another. Although Google has changed multiple times the enquiry algorithm and has now updated its filters as to prevent and quickly dismiss these practices when they happen, back in 2004 the succession of a Google bomb was somewhat easy, as a 46 year-old programmer managed to associate the query “miserable failure” with the biography of former US president George Bush within 6 weeks (McNichol, n.p.). Yet, this popular example of a successful Google bomb is not the only one. Users have been trying to manipulate search engines query results since the beginning of the Web in order to spread a message, advertise or just amuse themselves. What is particularly important in this practice is the political substance it often carries. Even though the message carried is not representative of the totality of the Internet, movements like this manage to bring to the surface the opinions of minorities that traditional media may have left unheard, up to that point. Google bombs give prominence to the power of participatory culture in manipulating the Media to what certain subcultures aim to express.
Platforms like 4chan, 8chan and Reddit that gather in their bays the alt-right, the social justice warriors, different online movements and the meme culture are executing based in one fundamental feature: participation. As Marwick and Lewis explain, these niche communities require “a low barrier to entry, and various forms of “legitimate peripheral participation” exist in which curious onlookers can slowly learn group norms and become accepted contributors” (34). By taking advantage of the facilitation of new media, voices of social groups that would go unheard, from feminists to neo-Nazis and from queers to white supremacists, have now found in these communities a safe space of expression as well as ways to propagate their beliefs outside these closed groups. Reddit’s platform, in particular, facilitates the use of memetic logics by ‘gamifying’ the use of it, as Massanari explains. According to her research (2013), participation is encouraged on Reddit by the affordances of the platform itself. Viewed as a game, subredditors gather ‘karma points’ by posting as well as by the upvotes of others. Massanari suggests that the game of Reddit is to gather the most karma points, meaning that the user contributes with “appropriate, interesting, original content and engaging in the community’s conversation” (2).
The use of memes has significantly contributed in the gamification of Reddit and the composition of participatory culture. Memes are simple to understand, require no costs and are easily spread, making them cultural touch-points or “inside jokes” of the community (Massanari, 2). When it comes to political content, numerous examples of memes successfully circulate the Internet, spreading the propaganda of various political subcultures, such as the alt-right with Pepe the frog, who managed to re-appropriate through humour the ideas of white supremacists, supporters of Donald Trump (Marwick, Lewis, 36). Limor Shiffman suggests that memes facilitate a new way of political participation. Especially popular among younger citizens, who may find traditional politics boring and, therefore, repulsive, political memes are “about making a point — participating in a normative way about how the world should look and the best way to get there” (120). It can be claimed that memes not only serve as the transmitters of the political message, but also act as the factor that brings communities together.
For /r/fullcommunism, memes play a major role in their rhetoric. In their own words, /r/fullcommunism claims to be ‘the edgiest page of the internet’, with their primary target to create, discuss and share memes that either idolize communist regimes and their leaders, such as Lenin, Stalin and Marx or to criticize liberals, capitalism and social justice warriors through satire. However, any call of violence is against their rules, thus even though they state in their description that they clearly oppose any form of fascism or racism, the moderators stand strong by their right to ban anyone who verbally attacks other subredditors. Simultaneously, as the rules of the subreddit state, /r/fullcommunism is strictly meme-oriented and serious discussions are prohibited. Supporters of any form of left-wing ideology are welcome to participate in the forum, yet any opposed opinion (especially if coming from a liberal), will be met with exclusion (ban).
What can be understood from the ethnography of the subreddit, is that even though /r/fullcommunism functions as a safe space for leftists to have fun and make memes to mock the establishment, the rules that govern it result in the creation of an echo chamber. Since the communities formed in Reddit keep it strict within people of the same interests and the content is tailored to the beliefs of their peers, the created environment can be as intoxicating as addicting (Massanari, 9) for those who participate. The effects of echo chambers are especially apparent to communities of fanatic subcultures, such as /r/TheRedPill and /r/TwoXChromosomes, where the repetition of extreme opinions, while it allows the expression of opinions, contributes to the spread of ideas of inequality, sexism and racism. Nevertheless, by representing the humoristic side of the radical left on Reddit, /r/fullcommunism redounds to the polyphony of the platform as it can be seen as a counterpublic, that uses participatory media to find internal support and challenge dominant antagonisms (Milner, n.p.). It is important to note that /r/fullcommunism does not comply to the definition of Chantal Mouffe for antagonistic counterpublics (2005,2009), for the reason that even though the members recognise liberalism and capitalism as ‘the enemy’, the surrounding discussion always remain in the context of humour, classifying the subreddit as an agonistic counterpublic, that utilizes “critical reflexive spaces of communicative interaction” to “contest dominant discourses that frame hegemonic practice and meaning”(861) as Milner quotes Dahlberg (n.p.).
If /r/fullcommunism is perceived as a counterpublic of public conversation, the core of which is agonistic conflict (Milner, n.p), the construction of Google bombs, a practice that the community frequently engages with, could potentially be of political substance and part of an ‘electronic repertoire of contention’ (Costanza-Chock, 3). Political activism in the Era of Web 2.0 is taking advantage of the digital affordances in order to put pressure on current affairs. Owing to the ‘architecture of participation’ (Rolfe, 3) it is now easier than ever for groups of mutual ideologies and targets to gather together in a cyberspace and act collectively, since the requirements of technical proficiency for participation have been eliminated, since the time only hacking was perceived as a form of digital activism.
In order to analyse the practice of Google bombs in the context of political participation, the results of the empirical research of the discourse analysis for /r/fullcommunism will be used as a case study in relation to Bruno Latour’s theory of programs and anti-programs, as an attempt to contextualise the practice of Google bombs. By the term ‘programs’, Latour explains the statements, as well as the loads attached to them, that one puts forward in order to promote a particular project or proposal (Latour, 105), while the ‘anti-programs’ of his theory refer to the resistance put against these efforts or proposals (Rogers, 7). In practice, programs and anti-programs are being expressed through the use of specific terms or vernacular. The aim is to examine the terms used by /r/fullcommunism in three popular posts of Google bombs and, according to Latour’s theory, to discuss the selection of the term in relation to the images accompanying them. Even though the effects of Google bombs do not linger long enough to comprise a major swift in the context, it may be seen as a new act of political participation that does not necessarily aim to scrutinize and denounce politicians, such as the example of ‘miserably failure’ correlation with George Bush’s biography, but may also work with neutral terms in an attempt to redefine social norms and obtain what Latour would describe as dominance through humour.
The most popular posts in /r/fullcommunism, as it derives from the empirical research, are calls for participation in the construction of Google bombs. Two examples of Google bombs will be further analysed to understand the concept of the practice within the frame of the sarcastic subreddit of the radical left.
This Google bomb aims to associate the term “Santa” with a picture of Karl Marx. The choice of the term is particularly interesting, because Santa Claus is traditionally a symbol of capitalistic America and goes hand in hand with one of its greatest representatives, Coca Cola corporation. However, there is a less known version that suggests that Santa was, indeed, a member of the communist party. Ded Moroz (Russian for Grandfather Frost) was the Russian Santa during the Soviet Union and Stalin’s leadership, that wore blue, was presented as a good spirit and taught the importance of hard work to Soviet children (Reeve, n.p.). Nonetheless, since the established figure of Santa is the one portrayed by capitalism, the choice of this term for the construction of a Google bomb could refer to the idea of détournement, a technique used by the Situationist International that define it as “a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres” (Situationist International, n.p.).
The definition of Douglas Holt reveals the correlation with what /r/fullcommunism attempts, since he described détournement as the act of “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” (252). The technique of détournement was used to set up subversive political pranks, or situationist pranks, in which the punk movement of the 1970s engaged in (Holt, 252).
In that sense, what /r/fullcommunism attempts to achieve by replacing the traditional Christmas figure of Santa Claus with a photograph of Karl Marx has a two-pronged readout: On the one hand, the inversion of a term deeply connected to the society of consumerism and capitalism, such as Santa, with a photograph of Karl Marx, the emblematic father of the communist ideology (who happens to look like Santa Claus) could be seen as an example of détournement-like humour, as the ‘comrades’ of /r/fullcommunism turn an expression of the capitalist system against this system itself. It is especially interesting the fact that this Google bomb was conducted in December 2016, around the Christmas holidays, thus around the time of the year when Google’s search queries for ‘Santa’ probably skyrocket.
On the other hand, tailored humour could be perceived as propaganda. Even though /r/fullcommunism opposes capitalism and mocks liberals, the terms used for the construction of Google bombs do not constitute anti-programs in the Latourian sense, but programs, as they do not use terms with fundamentally negative tone (as the example of ‘miserable failure’) but they use ostensibly neutral terms (Santa) or words of pejorative meaning and redistribute this meaning to reflect communist beliefs. According to Latour, “we are not to follow a given statement through a context, we are to follow the simultaneous production of the text and the context” (107). Consequently, the refined satire of /r/fullcommunism is not used to argue the establishment but to suggest a new system of meanings, one that promotes the ideas of communism. The context of the term is not solid or unalterable, but through the use of memetic logics it is being reshaped according to the program of action the subreddit wishes for the public to follow.
Another example of the ‘programming’ performed through the construction of Google bombs by /r/fullcommunism is the use of the term ‘social justice warrior’ (or sjw, as it is known in the Reddit community). Social Justice Warrior, as a term, refers to the liberal activists (Marwick, Lewis, 27) that for the communities of 4chan and Reddit represent the defenders of political correctness, while discussing identity politics and social injustice. The term is more often than not treated with a negative notion. However, /r/fullcommunism, attempted to correlate the Google query results for ‘sjw’ with a photo of a member of Women’s Protection Units.
Leaving humour aside, this Google bombs indicates the intention of the community to send a message and reply to the program that ‘sjw’ originally promotes with another one that puts forward the ideas of communism. It can be supported that Google bombs are concrete examples of Latourian programs, since they are:
- Based on the resemblances that constitute associations. For instance, the picture chosen to substitute the figure of Santa Claus is one of Karl Marx with a long beard, while for Social Justice Warrior, the photograph depicts a female soldier of a physical war. The non-linguistic content of the Google bombs works as the trajectory of association that urges to correlate different meanings. To quote Bruno Latour “the degree of resemblance has to be taken as an index of an association chain” (114)
- Made up from elements that can be redistributed (Latour, 109). The choice of terms and content is made in such way that the leftist community of /r/fullcommunism can manipulate them towards the desired direction in order to create a message that bears and promotes the communist perception of the world.
When asked about the motives behind every Google bomb, one of the moderators from /r/fullcommunism replied: “I think such efforts are primarily tongue-in-cheek; more a meme than an earnest effort to manipulate Google results, although I can’t speak for our all our users. I would be surprised if we’d had an impact, since my understanding was that Google had long ago taken measures to diminish the impact of such manipulations.”.
Even if the success of Google bombs is doubtful, the effort put into supporting them with political substance is obvious. The ethnography of the subReddit has revealed that behind the satirical forum there are knowledgeable moderators with argumentation and ideologies. Given that meme culture is now turning more political than ever, it is a natural consequence that the representatives of the communist memes on the Web will use the same means to propagate their purposes.
In conclusion, it can be argued that Google bombs, when used by cyber-counterpublics, are what Molotov cocktails are to public protests: they do not really change anything, but they do make a point. Presumably, they could constitute a new way of political participation, yet, in the case of /r/fullcommunism, the importance lies in the involvement of the community and the engagement of it with the practice. In a way, Google bombs are more about ‘phatic’ participation than passing a point. It is in this case that McLuhan was correct with his statement that “the medium is the message”. As for the members of the radical left, it is clear that in these times it is more important to create and maintain a sense of unity within the community, than to comprise a revolution through ‘hactivism’.