(Beware, this article contains spoilers of TV shows and movies, including season 4 of House of Cards)
The new season of Game of Thrones came back just a while ago, and the world of pop culture is holding desperately its breath, in a kind of joyful thrill for the two months to come.
The reason why pop culture brings so much excitement nowadays – as for this show – is because it is a picture of society but with a distorting mirror, a sublimation of reality. Our best and worst desires or fantasies are transported into realistic situations, that speak to us: super heroes, intrigues, psychological games… This is the case of House of Cards, series featuring politicians in a race to power in the United States.. The show is starring an anti hero who plays with our unspoken impulses of power and manipulation in a dramatic dimension, by means of political, psychological and relationship plots. So much that we almost end by liking, or even loving this evil twin of ours, just so we can hate him even more.
But the interesting matter for us about this show, as professional in digital marketing, is how this latest season (but also in comparison with other movies and TV shows references) is that it uses a tool that we extensively and daily make use of, search engines.
Pollyhop: this fictional almighty Google’s twin in House of Cards
To quickly summarize the context of this season to neophytes. While the race for presidency gets closer, the battle between democrat leader (the hero) and republican one is fierce. But in the meantime, the democrat leader has to guarantee his nomination in his own party against other potential candidates.
In this race for votes, the republican leader has made a secret agreement with the leading search engine in USA (a kind of fictional Google), in order to manipulate the population.This is a key factor in the race for the White House in the series, this search engine will play a key role throughout the all episodes.
What interests us, above all, in this context is how it is described. What is the understanding of Hollywood screenwriters and producers of a search engine and its influence? How does the audience feel about the importance of a search engine, through the eye of pop culture? It is quite rare to see mass media talking about this topic, that’s why we must take a closer look about what they say…
The power of a search engine
Even if users may not realize it, a search engine has a strong impact on them, because it controls the answers to their questions. This is also the assumption of House of Cards when they are developing the idea that a partnership between a politician and a search engine could be so important that it would be able to turn the results of an election. But how?
In the show, Pollyhop analyzes users’ queries and it artificially alters the results of these queries, depending on the user profile, to get them to have a favorable view of the Republican candidate. So, the company gathers all the requests and personal data of every individual, to understand better his interests and the topics he will be most sensitive in his opinions. With this information, the search engine can give an answer that is closer to the user interests, but also showing a good side of the republican candidate, and at the same time hiding other facets. Hence, the search engine manipulates internet users by instilling a positive vision of someone, so much that it could change their vote.
This scenario can be frightening and even more because it’s technically possible. However, in real life, we could not imagine Google taking side in presidential elections.
Nevertheless, for the elections that are occurring right now, Ted Cruz’ campaign team used a very similar technique, when they signed a partnership with data company Cambridge Analytica. They analyze the data of supporters to the party via their public social profiles among others to identify and influence persona based on their interests in favor of Ted Cruz. But we could notice that this was not enough to turn the votes for Donald Trump, who has been nominated a republican candidate.
A search engine can have more impact and power over people when you know how its artificial intelligence grows and becomes predominant find out here. It is this scenario that is directed by the film Ex-machina, which depicts a secret project of artificial intelligence robot driven by a monopolising search engine company. If the tragic outcome of the film can be scary, it nevertheless leads to question the power of AI, how far can you take him? And it inevitably leads to think about the old myth and fear of the all powerful artificial intelligence, that becomes more prevalent when we know how much Google invests in these kind of technologies (Rankbrain is just one of many examples).
What about privacy?
With all these questions in mind, House of Cards goes right into the heart of the debate, when the republican candidate, in response to the growing accusations of being in control of the search engine, admits unashamedly the truth. At this very moment, he goes so deep into the whole transparency position that he commit himself fully to it: yes, I am spying on you, but in exchange you can spy on me too, in any case, no data is private nowadays! The republican leader decides to film himself and his family constantly, giving all the population full access of his private home and life.
The issue is very serious, but at the same time very contemporary: what is the role of private life today? Does it even exist still? Aren’t we finally all spied upon, or watched in one way or another with all the device we connect to and internet? This is something to learn from pop culture: the debate is fierce and everybody is worrying about this matter.
This issue is not even new as back in 2009, the Dutch documentary I love Alaska was concerned about a leak of 650 000 users’ search history in the AOL search engine, public and available to anyone. This was already a warning to people to be careful with data given to search engines.
The bias issue: who controls internet?
All in all, the central question of the show is highly ethical: who controls such a powerful tool and all the data that we upload?
In House of Cards the republican party owns Pollyhop, and gets incredible influence on its users. On the other side of the screen, the audience cannot avoid thinking about Google and its influence!
It is a known fact that Mountain View firm is not tied with any political wing, but can we say that it is completely neutral then? How could we know that a certain control from secret services has never occurred, like in the worst conspiracy scenarios? And more important, can we really trust a private company dealing with such a tool that is becoming more and more universal and necessary in daily life?
It’s a mixture of phobia and fascination of Orwell’s “Big Brother” that takes place through the show, and also in people’s minds.
And the role of SEO amongst all this?
SEO has been regularly criticized by pop culture in recent years in other series. In 2011 the Dexter HBO series features a character who proposes to use another search engine Google (see image above), which “uses an algorithm to aggregate content without getting tripped up by SEO bull$h!t “.
That same year 2011, the series The Good Wife for CBS treated the subject with this dialogue:
- Lawyer: “I know they will – but the judge will see your job as irrelevant to the crime”
- Client: “It’s just… people hate what I do”
- Lawyer: “Spam”
- Client (interrupting): “Search engine optimization”
A while ago, this technique was seen purely and simply as spamming, and SEO was turned into some evil nerd trying to corrupt us. On the contrary, House of Cards does not target SEO as the evil brain behind Internet spam. As a consequence we can appreciate that SEO popularity amongst audience appears slightly better. However as analyzing the situation we cannot help compare (as you surely did reading this article) this collaboration between a politician and a search engine with a SEO consultant. All in all, isn’t it the same for us to be paid by an organisation to manipulate search results so that our clients rank better than their competitors?
Although this is not directly the topic of the series here, we still feel threatened by an ethical criticism: the goal is indeed to manipulate search results. Nevertheless, the difference with the series however, is that it is a commercially oriented agreement between several actors. While a political role is to serve citizens, a company’s role is to sell.
But as a matter of fact, this does not mean that we should not care about ethical caution in our profession. Indeed the goal is to sell, but not sell our soul to the devil! Hence, can we really do everything to manipulate algorithms? The issue is obviously black hat techniques for example, and the real challenge should be to answer to the needs of the audience as first of all things. And besides there is also the problem of knowing for whom we are working: should we try to rank everybody without really caring about the product quality?
But in the end, it’s an issue for everybody involved in the advertising business…