Study finds even time travellers aren't using Google+ (or Twitter, or Facebook, or Bing)

How would we know if time travellers have visited our time period? By looking for tweets, of course.

In the early years of the last decade there was a trend of people posting on internet forums claiming to be time travellers from the future. The most famous of these was John Titor, a name used by someone through 2000 and 2001, claiming that they were visiting from the year 2036.

Titor’s predictions ranged from the geopolitical to the scientific. He would share scans of the schematics for his time machine - installed inside a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette, no less - and claimed that 2004 would see a worldwide nuclear war that would reduce the United States to civil war.

We can be pretty sure Titor wasn’t a time traveller. His claim that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics was correct (and that, therefore, if something doesn’t happen in one timeline, it has to have happened in at least one other) is a convenient get-out clause for his incorrect predictions, many of which reflect the major events and scandals of the time like mad cow disease. He completely misses 9/11 and the war on terror, too, which is a pretty big omission.

How, though, can we be sure that there wasn’t a real John Titor out there, leaving a trail of predictive crumbs on some small message board in a corner of the web?

Physicists Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson from Michigan Technological University have a neat paper called, suitably enough, “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers”, and it proposes three methods for seeking out evidence of of time travellers on the web. Spoiler: they don’t find anything. But it’s still an interesting idea to consider.

In August 2013, Nemiroff and Wilson searched for posts made between January 2006 and September 2013 that mentioned either or both of two terms: “Pope Francis” and “Comet ISON”. These were chosen because they’re very unique terms - Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first pope to take the name Francis, and Comet ISON is the only comet to have that particular name - and are therefore unlikely to have been mentioned by chance before they were coined (in March 2013 and September 2012, respectively).

There were three ways to see if anyone had let slip those terms before they should have. The first was a simple search using Google, Bing, Google+, Facebook, and Twitter, and it actually turned up a result - a blog post where someone talked about a future “Pope Francis”. “Butbut upon close inspection and consideration,” the authors wrote, “that blog post was deemed overtly speculative and not prescient.”

Second was to dig into what people had been searching for on search engines like Google during that time period. “A time traveller might have been trying to collect historical information that did not survive into the future, or might have searched for a prescient term because they erroneously thought that a given event had already occurred, or searched to see whether a given event was yet to occur,” Nemiroff and Wilson write. Google Trends doesn’t show anything for either search term, and neither Bing nor Yahoo! offer that kind of detail.

The researchers even get access to Nasa’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website stats, and have a dig around to see if anyone ended up landing on the homepage thanks to searching for Comet ISON. Still nothing.

The third (and final) method was interactive, asking time travellers to go back in time and reveal themselves by tweeting or emailing one of two phrases - #ICanChangeThePast2 or #ICannotChangeThePast2 - on or before August 2013. The two phrases were chosen because neither hashtag had ever been used before this study, and the researchers hoped that any time traveller who obliged would clear up a fundamental question about how time travel works.

But, of course, they did a search for the hashtags before revealing the request in September 2013, and inevitably nobody seemed to have travelled back in time to tweet or email.

What can we conclude from this? “Although the negative results reported here may indicate that time travelers from the future are not among us and cannot communicate with us over the modern day Internet,” the researchers write, “they are by no means proof.” There are all kinds of reasons why there might not be evidence left behind by time travellers, from the physical impossibility of changing the past to them simply being very good at covering their tracks. It wasn’t a comprehensive search either - all we know is that time travellers don’t use Twitter or Google Plus if they come back.

“This search might be considered the most sensitive and comprehensive search yet for time travel from the future,” the researchers write. The truth may be out there, but requires further investigation.

It's a clock, flying through time. (Image: Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.