There were three action alerts in my inbox this morning, each of increasing vehemence. I deleted the first one after I realized that it was accusing Google of anti-Semitism and the second and third ones based on their subject lines. Because if the hysterical accusations during the “Jew” Googlebombing dustup demonstrated anything – good intentions do not necessarily grant bloggers a robust grasp of new media technology). I figured that this was more of the same – pathologically anti-Israel users create content, a Google technology automatically indexes the content and makes it available, Google as a corporation gets blamed. Close. The article is written by Andre Oboler a social media expert and comp sci professor – so he knows the difference between platform and content. His concern is at the bottom:
Virtual Israel, as represented by Google Earth, is littered with orange dots, many of which claim to represent “Palestinian localities evacuated and destroyed after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.” Thus, Israel is depicted as a state born out of colonial conquest rather than the return of a people from exile. Each dot links to the “Palestine Remembered” site, where further information advancing this narrative can be obtained. Many of the claims staked out in Google Earth present misinformation… The inclusion of virtual Palestine, superimposed on Israel in the core layer of Google Earth, is an example of replacement geography advanced by technology. Those wishing to explore Israel in Google Earth are immediately taken to a politically motivated narrative unrelated to their quest. Google should remove the narrative and treat Israel as it treats every other country on the globe. The core layer of Google Earth should be ideology free and not serve as a platform for indoctrination or a campaign to wipe Israel off the virtual map… Disturbingly, Google has incorporated the Palestinians’ overlays and their accompanying narrative into its core maps of Israel. As Google maintains editorial control over its core layer, it has responsibility for its content, which it clearly has not adequately exercised.
Yes and no. First a little background: Google Earth is a GIS platform. It takes arbitrary data inside a layer – provided it’s in the right format and says where it’s supposed to go – and then projects it on a map. Any user of sufficient skill can create a layer with anything they want and then make it available to everybody else. The layer in question – this “Virtual Israel” thing – has points representing a bunch of Arab villages that either never existed, were never destroyed, or were destroyed long before Israel existed. Vicious and false – but not Google’s fault any more than a webpage saying the same thing is Google’s fault. Oboler’s claim seems to be that Google incorporated this layer into their default installation of Google Earth – almost as if when you searched for “Israel” on Google itself you got a sponsored anti-Israel page at the very top. The problem is that – as near as I can tell – there is no “Virtual Israel” layer in the Google default. The misleading information that’s pissing everybody off is there, but it seems to be in a different layer – and not one that there’s an easy solution for.
As near as I can tell, the offending layer is coming from the Google Earth Community layer. If that’s what’s going on than this story is not only ancient in terms of blogtime – it’s also anything but easily dealt with:
We’re a little late on this story, but Dave Bender gave us the heads up about a week ago to the trouble with Google Earth” The introduction of Google Earth in June 2005 heralded a new internet era where people could see their homes from space, explore holiday destinations and learn about different cultures from the comfort of their own desktop. But the online giant could never have predicted it being used to promote anti-Israel propaganda… This isn’t exactly hard to anticipate. Google Earth opened itself up to community editing, which effectively means being edited by majority rule. Given that much of the world is pathologically aligned against Israel… there are entire swaths of the planet seemingly eager to feign belief in the most absurd, most transparent anti-Israeli lies. Abba Eban opined that “if Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions”, and that’s probably right plus/minus a couple votes.
Google Earth Community is the open layer – unaffiliated with Google – that allows users to easily add their own content. Kind of like a geo-tagged Wikipedia that’s automatically exported into Google Earth, minus even the minimal the checks and balances of Wikipedia. The problem is that the world is crawling with hysterics who use new media technologies to spread the same kind of misleading smears to the world that they spread on college campuses, in academic journals, and across international institutions. If that’s what’s going on here, then this isn’t a Google issue as much as it is a much broader question about how to combat new innovations of the oldest hatreds. And if I’m reading Dave Bender’s newest post on this correctly, that’s also the sense he’s getting about the story.
Google – quite rightly – isn’t going to take the Google Earth Community out of Google Earth. User generated content is overwhelmingly beneficial – and, no matter what the forum, it comes bundled together with a lot of nonsense. And, in a nice contrast to how Google issues used to be approached, none of the other JBlog posts are blaming Google itself. Two of the posts about this were tight and specific debunkings of the lies that’re being spread through the Google Earth Community layer. Those are the kinds of things that need to be bundled into the layer itself.
If there is a separate anti-Israel layer in the default installation, though, then that’s a totally different controversy. Anybody found this stuff in anything but the Community layer?
UPDATE: Just so there’s no confusion – the four posts I linked to at the top were all good examples of how to react to this story. They either called attention to the critical lesson of the controversy – that there are a lot of people spreading a lot of lies in a lot of ways – or took time to debunk a few of those lies.
* Google Earth: (virtually) ‘Wiping Israel off the map’ [Israel At Level Ground]
* Jihad Geography and the falsification of history [BtB]
* Google Earth And Israel: Replacement Geography [Daled Amos]
* Headlineblog: Andre Oboler: Google Earth: A New Platform for Anti-Israel Propaganda [Solomania]
* Google Earth Being Used For Anti-Israeli Propaganda [MR]
* Google Trends: Lots of People in Irvine Have Weird Tendency to Sound Like Anti-Semites
* Media Consensus Forming: Israeli West Bank Ops Violate Gaza Ceasefire (Plus: Palestinians Shot West Bank Israelis On Day 2)
* We’re Easily Amused: Yourish Google Search Edition