Devin Nunes and the Power of Keyword Signaling - 2019-10-14
On September 26, the House Intelligence Committee held a hearing to investigate a whistle-blower complaint against President Donald Trump. In Congressman Devin Nunes' opening remarks, he argued that this was just another example of news media and Democratic "information warfare" spreading "hoaxes" that delegitimize the president. His argument was similar to his remarks during a June 12 House Intelligence Committee hearing, where he referred to the Mueller Report as a "shoddy political hit piece" created through a "perfect feedback loop" between intelligence leakers, key intelligence figures, Democrats, and the media who perpetuate "fake outrage." These remarks do more than assert his position. A careful analysis reveals how strategic keyword signaling amplifies conservative agendas in the contemporary news environment.
We increasingly turn to search engines to seek out information. Since Google's earliest days, marketers have relied on "search engine optimization" to try to maximize the likelihood that Google returns content that highlights their cause or company. In today's media landscape, organizations and individuals also use these tactics to manipulate the algorithms behind Facebook/Instagram and Twitter feeds. The problem is, whether or not we're aware, the key words we search are coded with political biases. My research demonstrates that it's possible to position ideological searches to maximize the exposure of their content.
When there is limited or no content available on a topic, it's possible to game search engines to guarantee that certain keywords will be directed to content that includes these terms or is tagged accordingly. This is why conspiracy theorists were able to capitalize on the concept of a "crisis actor." By producing a plethora of insidious content rife with the term and maximizing SEO, conspiracy theorists filled what Microsoft's Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd referred to as a "data void." Searches for "crisis actor" got conspiratorial results until other sources filled the void with more legitimate content debunking the theory.