Dark arts? More like bogus boasts

On Bell Pottinger, fake blogs and Googlewashing.

During the course of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's sting operation, published in the Independent today, Bell Pottinger's head of public affairs Tim Collins declares: "We've got all sorts of dark arts." These are "dark arts" that apparently can be deployed to manage online reputations for clients.

In other words, by using some rather murky SEO (search engine optimisation) techniques, the company could guarantee more favourable client content appearing higher in Google's search results.

According to the report:

A presentation shown during the meeting said it [Bell Pottinger] could "create and maintain third-party blogs" -- blogs that appeared to be independent. These would contain positive content and popular key words that would rank highly in Google searches. The pair also explained how the firm enables government videos and articles to move to the top of internet searches, while less favourable stories can move down the rankings.

If it is true that Bell Pottinger -- which dismissed the Independent's coverage as "an attempt to manufacture a story where none exists" -- was boasting that it could "manipulate" Google's search results in this way, then perhaps the firm should reconsider that claim. For a start, it contravenes the codes of conduct of both the CIPR and PRCA -- the two main PR industry trade bodies -- in terms of transparency.

Moreover, the claim that any PR firm (or anyone) for that matter, can guarantee to manipulate Google results is also clearly bogus.

How does Google decide to rank one page more highly than another? It uses hundreds of different factors to determine its search results but one major signal is the quality of links from other pages. Not only that, but Google knows what constitutes a natural rise in links versus those that someone is attempting to artificially inflate.

Google would notice any abnormal link building, for example a page that suspiciously starts getting lots of links in a very short space of time from what will be, by definition, low authority pages and sites. Creating fake blogs and using comment spam to try and "manipulate" Google (or Googlewashing as some call it) is not tolerated by the search engine firm -- and will have the reverse effect.

The Independent's report continues:

The firm cited past examples of its work, included manipulating Google rankings for an East African money transfer company called Dahabshiil. Bell Pottinger executives said they had ensured that references to a former Dahabshill employee subsequently detained in Guantanamo Bay because of alleged links to al-Qai'da disappeared from the first 10 pages of a Google search for the company.

OK. It doesn't take much to work out that the employee concerned was called "Muhammad Sulayman Barre". Try searching on that name in Google and see what results you get.

Or try searching on "Dahabshiil employee guantanamo".

The notion that Bell Pottinger could somehow guarantee manipulating Google results is misguided -- a definite case of overclaiming for the apparently very expensive "dark arts" of online reputation management.

 

Andrew Smith is Managing Director of Escherman Limited, a specialist online PR, SEO and analytics consultancy. He tweets @andismit

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.