DuckDuckGo's homepage. Photo: DuckDuckGo.
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Has Edward Snowden changed the way we think about search engines?

DuckDuckGo, a browser which doesn't track your online activity, has increased its traffic six-fold since the Snowden revelations.

Heard of Gabe Weinberg? No, me neither. But earlier this week, the CEO appeared on CNBC to announce that his search engine company, DuckDuckGo, has seen a 600 per cent surge in traffic over the past two years. In a playing field utterly dominated by Google – with Bing And Yahoo! stumbling on behind – this is an intriguing turn of events.

Clues to the site’s success lie in its simplicity. The homepage is pared back, bar the logo’s manically grinning duck (see image above), and, crucially, the site markets itself on the fact that it doesn’t track your online activity. Unlike Google, DuckDuckGo doesn’t supply sites you click on with the search terms you use, and it doesn’t store information about you once you leave. There are no personalised ads –  just ads on the search results page prompted by the keywords you search for. As Weinberg told CNBC: "We make money just with keyword advertising. Type in car, and you get a car ad. It's really that straightforward." 

In practice, this means that those used to Google’s personalised search results may find DuckDuckGo a little frustrating to use. It won’t get to know you, and rank links accordingly. It won’t remind you which one of those news stories you’ve clicked on before (unless your browser has remembered this for you – in which case the site shows a little tick next to the link, rather than turning it purple).

But the timing of the site’s surging popularity suggests it’s part of a wider, and seemingly growing, interest in online privacy. In the weeks after Edward Snowden revealed the mass online surveillance of citizens by the US’s National Surveillance Agency and Britain’s GCHQ, DuckDuckGo reported a 90 per cent hike in traffic.

This is presumably because, as part of the revelations, it became clear that these national surveillance agencies regularly request access to user data from online companies like Google – and any company that collects huge amounts of data on your activities can therefore be forced to hand intimate details of your online life over to the government. DuckDuckGo and sites like it don’t have the data in the first place, so couldn’t pass it on even if ordered to. 

DuckDuckGo’s daily traffic since 2010. Photo: CNBC screenshot.

Yet the CNBC interviewers, while interested in Weinberg’s model, seemed a little nonplussed at the idea that widespread collection of data by websites is anything but a foregone conclusion. One asked how DuckDuckGo expects to make money without collecting user information, when Google, for example, uses its user data to power its huge ad networks, and tie into other parts of its business. Yet Weinberg claims that simple keyword advertising is the “most lucrative” type of ad, especially if companies are bidding against each other to come up whenever someone searches “car” or “mortgage”.

Support from big-hitting tech companies will help, too. 2014, Apple include DuckDuckGo on its default browser list for Safari, which implies that in the industry, at least, the site is now becoming a serious, mainstream alternative.

Google, meanwhile, is making some moves to give users greater control over their data. In 2014, it introduced introduced a “do not track” option, so marketers can't target you with ads – but this only acts as a “do not track request”, which can be ignored by non-participating websites. (More information on how to turn that on here.) The “incognito” browsing option, contrary to popular opinion, only prevents your own computer collecting information for its internal history. It doesn’t change the way Google tracks your activity.  

The real question now is whether DuckDuckGo’s new users are those already concerned with privacy or those particularly spooked by Snowden’s revelations, and whether the average person is bothered enough to switch search engine. Weinberg quoted research in the CNBC interview which found that 40 per cent of Americans would prefer a non-tracking search engine. This implies that a large market is out there, which could grow even larger if consumers are faced with quite how much data companies hold about them. Google currently processes more than a trillion searches per year, so if DuckDuckGo could tap into even 10 per cent of this, its growth over the past couple of years could be just the beginning. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Thanks to social media, ordinary people can now influence elections more than tabloids

The Conservatives spent £1.2m on online adverts – but the internet came up with anti-Theresa May memes for free.

Who or what spread the single most influential message of the 2017 general election? Was it Britain’s top-selling tabloid, the Sun, which chose 7 June to chastise us all with: “Don’t chuck Britain in the Cor-bin”? Was it Facebook, home to Theresa May’s £1.2m anti-Labour adverts that pleaded: “Don’t risk Corbyn in charge of Brexit”? Or was it Jennifer ­Agnew, a 21-year-old administrative assistant from East Kilbride?

You’ve probably heard of the first two. Since the newspaper first claimed as much in 1992, it has been a popular idea that it’s the Sun wot wins elections. This year, much has been made of “dark ads” on Facebook – paid-for messages that political parties can spread across the social network, beyond the gaze of the Electoral Commission. You’ve probably not heard of Agnew, but you might have seen her viral tweet.

After Theresa May disclosed the “naughtiest” thing she ever did on ITV’s Tonight, Agnew took to Twitter to mock the revelation. “Never have I ever ran [sic] through a field of wheat,” she wrote above a picture of May drinking from a glass of water, riffing on the student party game in which one drinker confesses to a misdeed and others take a sip if they, too, are guilty. Her tweet was shared more than 24,000 times and gained an additional 60,000 “Likes”.

“It was just a joke, really, but also poking fun at the difference in classes,” says Agnew, whose post went on to be retweeted by the pop star Ellie Goulding. “I can’t say I’ve ever run around in a field of wheat as a child being chased by farmers. It seems rather middle class.”

On 8 June, Agnew voted for the SNP. She didn’t intend for her tweet to have political ramifications but describes herself as “a big fan of Corbyn”, saying: “As far as politicians go, he’s honest.” Yet, regardless of Agnew’s intentions, her tweet was political. It was a powerful anti-May message – and it didn’t cost the Labour Party a penny.

Since Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, it has been widely understood that elections are fought across social media. Algorithms, some claim, boosted the fake news that propelled Donald Trump to office. By adding like-minded people as “friends” and deleting any dissenters, we all became entrapped in filter bubbles, unable to see the 2015 election result coming.

Face­book adverts that were micro-targeted to spread specific messages to specific people helped to bolster the vote for Brexit. All of these analyses are true, but each misses the most transformational aspect of social media. You know: the actual media part.

As of December 2016, the Sun had 1,611,464 readers every day. That’s a lot. But nowadays, people don’t need Rupert Murdoch and a printing press to wield political influence (they do, however, still need a witty pun). According to Twitter’s ­analytics tool, Agnew’s tweet reached over 2.9 million people. Everyone now has the potential to have the reach and influence of a tabloid.

Her tweet isn’t remarkable. It is merely one of thousands of viral social media posts that have spread this election, many of which generated headlines (“This Facebook comment about Jeremy Corbyn is going ­viral” read one on Indy100, the Independent’s sister site).

Hannah Thompson, a 24-year-old PR officer from Surrey, is another meme-maker. When the concept was introduced by Richard Dawkins, a meme was “an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. Now, it most commonly means “funny internet picture”. Yet memes might be just as influential as Dawkins’s original definition implied.

“I pretty much exclusively use Twitter as an avenue for my lame political jokes,” says Thompson, who tweeted a zoomed-in picture of Theresa May with the caption: “Nice wheat field you’ve got there. Would be a shame if somebody . . . ran through it” (7,243 retweets, 22,450 Likes).

“It would be helpful if more politicians understood the ‘social’ element of social media,” she adds. “Then, instead of spending hundreds of thousands just getting views for their posts, they can create things that actually engage people and help shift the narrative in people’s minds. I was really impressed by how Labour encouraged their members and activists to share things online. Seeing posts by actual human beings, rather than a party, is way more convincing than seeing a paid-for ad.”

There is a chance that, by the next election, politicians will have realised that a picture is worth a thousand words. Astro­turfing, the practice of masking the origin of a message to make it seem like a grass-roots opinion, is already common online. Advertisers frequently create profiles for fake teenagers, who then tweet about how much they “love” a product in order to make it seem popular.

After the shock election result, analysis by BuzzFeed revealed that stories published on the websites of right-leaning news­papers (such as the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun) failed to reach large audiences on Facebook and Twitter. BuzzFeed’s headline read: “Not even right-wingers are sharing positive stories about Theresa May on Facebook”. The most shared stories on social media were pro-Corbyn.

For all of the Conservatives’ power and wealth, their social media campaigns did not take off. Why? Because they weren’t inherently social. Theresa May relied on pounds to push her message, while Agnew and those like her relied on people.

As one social media user put it (receiving 8,790 retweets and 19,635 Likes): “Tories spent £1,200,000 on negative anti-Jeremy Corbyn social media adverts ... And the internet came up with anti-Theresa May memes for free.”

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

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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