London Mayoral Elections: Detecting BBC Bias through Google?

I don’t foray into politics on this blog, but nonetheless you can find some interesting stats using Google around the issue.

The BBC’s charter instructs it to maintain a fair balance in political reporting through the news – giving a proportional share of editorial space and coverage to all interested parties. Famously, the BNP’s performance during the late 2000s led to appearances on Question Time for Nick Griffin as part of this remit to even-handedness.

But lingering suspicions about the corporation’s bias remain. Rare is a week that passes without some politician or other averring that the BBC shows bias against his or her side of a debate. But thanks to Google, it’s possible to do some high-level stats to test the notion of balance. A good example is the election for London Mayor* – now just days away.

Current polls for the London Mayoral elections are quite revealing. The major parties – Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are naturally standing candidates – as  well as The Green Party, UKIP, BNP and a number of independents and small parties.

Firstly, bear in mind that by current polling figures, UKIP is expected to poll around 3% of the vote  –  around exactly that of the Greens.

So you’d expect that the BBC would be giving coverage to these parties more or less equally, right? I did some snuffling around using Google and found the following facts.

Of the main candidates, the results are more evenly split but still indicate some imbalances

As the incumbent, it is difficult to separate election-related stories for Boris Johnson from stories that involve him in his role as mayor – Google treats “mayor” and “mayoral” as equivalents. It is likely that the number of mentions he has received in the specific context of the election is actually fairly similar to that of Livingstone, but filtering signal from noise isn’t easily done.

Despite this, some interesting facts leap out.

  • Brian Paddick receives 66% of the number of mentions of Ken Livingstone does, despite only 8% of polled Londoners declaring their intention to vote for the Lib Dem compared to 41% for Livingstone.
  • Jenny Jones is given almost as much coverage as as Paddick, despite only 3% of voters saying they will vote Green.
  • Siobhan Benita receives fewer mentions than Jones, despite being at least equal to her in the polls
  • The BNP received more coverage than UKIP despite only polling at only 1% in contrast to 3% for UKIP
  • UKIP receive the least coverage of the ‘major’ parties (and by some margin) despite polling more highly than either the Greens, Independents or BNP.

Of course, this is all just fun and games but I think it’s possible to construct a view of how the BBC is covering the London Mayoral elections and it’s not one that the BBC should be proud of. The Liberal Democrats receive far more coverage than their likely share of the vote would suggest they should- and the paucity of coverage given to UKIP is pretty damning. That is nothing compared the favour shown to the Greens, who receive almost as much coverage as the Liberal Democrats, despite their even smaller share of the vote.

It must be allowed that the BBC disproportionately favours the Greens and the Liberal Democrats and almost ignores UKIP altogether, despite the backdrop of falling interest in green issues and increasing concern over the future of the EU.

*As I’m not a Londoner, and won’t be voting, none of this matters to me except in the abstract matter of how the election is being covered.

R.I.P. Google+ 2011-2013

Our correspondent, writing from Moonbase Alpha looks back at the troubled life and eventual death of Google+

google plus

With the tumbleweeds that greeted Google’s announcement that it is closing its social project ‘+’ it’s hard to remember that for a few short weeks in 2011, our forefathers were enraptured with this web curio. I took some time out to talk to the surviving members of the team behind the project.

I first caught up with Joe McDingle – now a spry 38 year old in a Florida retirement home, but still with a youthful twinkle in his eye. In 2011, he was in charge of naming and marketing the project

It was 2011. I guess we were all just a bit young and stupid

“Well we chose a stupid name!” he laughs, slapping his knee on his colourful check trousers. “It took Microsoft nearly two decades to realise that Microsoft could never use its brand outside of Windows and Office. We used to get out kicks shouting “Bing!” at Microsoft employees at conferences, but Hell – it worked! We should’ve learnt that lesson ourselves with Google Video. Google always meant search. That was the brand.”

McDingle now believes that the “+” name was a mistake that should never have happened.

“Oh we had critics from the get-go. People said it was difficult to use – how do you even type it? – and no-one dared to point out to the board that Google+ would mean nothing to the man in the street. At best, they’d probably guess it meant extra search features.” He is equally scathing about the choice of +’s internal modules.

“Huddles? Well that was Alvin’s [Kuriesha – Google ops manager at the time] idea. I wanted to call it something that people would understand like ‘chat’ or something. But they’d bussed these marketing guys in and they said it had to be futuristic and we were overruled. Just like ‘friends’ and ‘groups’ became ‘circles.’ He stops for a glass of water and looks out of the wistfully out of the window. “Still, it was 2011. I guess we were all just a bit young and stupid.”

But +’s problems weren’t just limited to its branding. Alvin Kuriesha himself now admits that the launch plan was deeply flawed. Today, he is in charge of Google Hatstand – the new dating service for Google users – but back in 2011, he was the idealistic ops manager who came up with the launch strategy.

“You have to understand that back then it was all about playing to shareholders and keeping the stock price up.” He chuckles at the memory. “Of course, no-one would run a tech company like that these days, but back then that’s all there was.”

Everyone’s got a Google profile and the advantages of that over a Facebook or Twitter account are just so obvious.

+ was initially rolled out to selected journalists, bloggers and geeks. The reason, Kuriesha now explains, was to get coverage.

“Of course Sullivan [Danny Sullivan – then just a lowly blogger] wasn’t a regular customer! He was tech all the way to his fingertips. And he had this blog or something that had, like, hundreds of readers. So it made sense to let him in on it first, because he’d get it. And then he could tell his readers about it and… well. You get the idea.”

The theory, according to Kureisha, was that positive early press reports in the tech media would percolate out through naive, untrained journalists covering tech in the mainstream media who would be unable to grasp anything more than the point that this was somehow like Facebook. They in turn would do the heavy lifting work of explaining the project to the lay public who would then lap it up like slavering simpletons.

The press immediately saw the potential, but somehow the public failed to grasp the implications for their real life sharing activities

“Even now I don’t know why it didn’t work the we way thought it would. It worked wonders for Wave [Google’s massively popular chat/email tool]. There was a famous video of developers whooping and hollering when Wave was being demo’d and the guy typed things and they appeared onscreen practically in realtime. When that went viral, we knew Wave was a hit because it really explained the product. + seemed so logical to us that we thought the same thing would happen.”

Of course, history now shows that this never happened in the way that Google insiders had envisioned. The cachet of being invited to preview + certainly garnered column inches and the attention of the tech bloggerati but it turned out that actual people didn’t really care.

“It’s funny,” Kureisha says. “People just love sharing stuff. And people love Google. So why no-one bothered to share things on Google is just a mystery to me. Everyone’s got a Google profile and the advantages of that over a Facebook or Twitter account are just so obvious. All your friends are on Google. All of them!”

To this day, Kureisha keeps an internal Google PowerPoint presentation about the benefits of +. Faded with age, but still legible, it includes several Venn diagrams and arrows pointing from box to box to illustrate how people talk to each other. He maintains that locked inside this presentation are the secrets that will finally make the public realise that Google IS social. From the quiet of his office, with its view of the California mountains, you get the sense that one day, this quietly determined man will be back to prove his point.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, + was just an idea ahead of its time.