Applied Googling

For various reasons, I got interested today in the campaign to kick Coca-Cola off of college campuses, in response to allegations about the actions of company franchisees in India and Colombia.

I may have some comments on the campaign itself after I learn a bit more: I’ve sent out emails or requests for information to both Coca-Cola and the activist organization that’s been most centrally involved in this campaign, as well as to student representatives here.

But for the moment, I just want to use this case as a demonstration of what you can and cannot find out through Googling.

Here’s what I wanted to know:

1) How old is this campaign?
2) Which organizations are supporting it?
3) Where does the information about Coca-Cola that the campaign relies upon come from?

My first search was for “Kick Coke”. That turned up a website for a group called Killer Coke, which when you read it appears to be substantially an organization tied to SINALTRAINAL, a Colombian labor union. The Wikipedia entry on SINALTRAINAL and Coke is pretty informative, actually, and externally sourced. The head of Killer Coke itself is Ray Rogers. Googling his name plus “Coke” identifies him as a very experienced, long-time union activist.

Going back to “Kick Coke”, it becomes apparent just by reading Google summaries of found sites on the first two pages that the movement has spread to a lot of college campuses, and at many (including Swarthmore) administrations have agreed to turn to alternate suppliers of soft drinks. Page two also gets you a recipe for Cherry Kick Coke. Reading these stories, another organization backing the campaign is often mentioned, the India Resource Center.

Reading this organization’s pages, it’s a bit harder to figure out who they are. Their material about Coca-Cola mostly concentrates on Indian issues, unsurprisingly, though they incorporate some of the Colombian information from Killer Coke into their fact sheets. So I went back to look at other Google results for the group. There’s quite a bit of noise in the results–other India Resource Centers, or other “resource centers” associated with India. Add “Coke”. What that reveals is that there are a lot of information clearinghouse sites and news aggregators like Common Dreams that have been reporting information about Coca-Cola that comes straight from the India Resource Center. There isn’t much in the way of an independent description of the organization, however.

Back to its webpage. The pages say the group is a project of a group called Global Resistance. The URL link for that group, however, just redirects to the India Resource Center. Speaking strictly in terms of teaching search behaviors and online research, I would call that a bit of an alarm bell. But I’m still not finding much about the group. History and Mission are vague. They say some about the group’s aspirations to be a platform for new social movements in India, but not when the group was founded, how large it is, what kind of budget it has, whether it verifies information it receives or conducts independent research. I look under staff and I find Amit Srivastava.

A Google for his name turns up a lot of information, almost all of it from a 2005 Wall Street Journal profile that’s been reprinted in a lot of places. The organization, at least in 2005, is just Amit Srivastava. With a small budget that the article says mostly comes from a Unitarian congregation, he circulates information he receives from grassroots Indian organizations that are involved in campaigns against Coke for its environmental and labor policies and travels around the country working with student activists.

Now none of this really tells me how to independently evaluate the kinds of claims made against Coke by these campaigns. That will take more research, and much of it can’t be done on Google. It does tell me that that information appears to largely be coming straight from the activists on the ground in Colombia and India, not from some independent research-driven organization. (Such as a group like Human Rights Watch, which relies on information from activists but has an independent staff that tries to verify that information for its own reports.) It doesn’t answer all the questions I started with, but it does answer some of them. There are also questions I can ask that aren’t research-driven. (For example, I know enough about multinational capitalism to wonder whether Coke’s labor policies are strikingly different than many other large consumer companies. Including Pepsi: Coke and Pepsi’s product rivalry has sometimes spilled out into real-world violence, as it did in Thailand in the 1980s.)

More importantly for this entry, in terms of Google-Fu, it shows how good search behavior takes a lot of moving back and forth, in and out of search terms. A lot of the time, it’s better to jump horses to a new search term after you’ve established the pattern of entries about three or four pages deep. It’s also important to know what the limits of the information you’re getting really are. The best you can do, in many cases, is establish what the flows of information on a particular topic are, and sometimes about how narrow or singular the ultimate source of information is. In a way, this is a good search for learning about new media ecology and the contemporary production of knowledge, and not such a good search for learning about how reliable the charges about Coca-Cola are.

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4 Responses to Applied Googling

  1. jpool says:

    Ivan Karp has offered this as a general principle for (ethnographic) research — that once you’ve established a common pattern of answers, you need to move on to a different question or to asking the question in a different way. Obviously this applies more to certain kinds of research more than others. My mind goes first to the classic example of Jan Vansina’s competing oral tradition, which he wouldn’t have found if he hadn’t been such a completist.
    Remember when there were different search engines that would offer you different kinds of results? Obviously web research can still only get you so far in any area, but I wish sometimes that there were other ways of engaging with it that might allow you to step outside of the googlocracy. Any suggestions?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, for example, if I want to know more about unions, death squads and multinationals in Colombia, one thing to do is to step from the Google space into the space of library catalogs. The problem there is that there is often an exponential step up in terms of the labor-to-results relationship, and so your motivation for knowing has to increase accordingly. If all books and articles were online and searchable, it wouldn’t be quite so bad, but at this point, making that move means I’d likely have to cross the lawn to the library and sit down to read some.

  3. jpool says:

    Sure, but I meant more within webland. Google has come to dominate websearching because it is incredibly effective at getting you to useful pages wit a minimum of dead links. But it’s still one particular approach to making sense of the web, and certain kinds of pages, such as individually run pages that are not multiply linked to, tend to fall to the bottom of its searches. Alternately, less common combinations of terms tend to get burried under the more popular but less direct combinations of them (for example, I was trying to look up some info on a friend but all of the results that came up for her first and last names were instead pages involving two separate celebrities who had been romantically linked).

    The webverse and the world of books and journals are a bit combined now, since JSTOR results come up in searches. Sometimes, this is really useful, even if I have to open up a new window to get at the info through my university. Other times this is really frustrating as, a) if I wanted to do a JSTOR search I’d do a JSTOR search, and b) if, say, I’m trying to figure out if a praticular person is still in academia (as I was earlier today), it doesn’t help so much to keep encoutering their articles from the 1970s.

  4. Well, for major press citations, there’s always still L/N.

    I dunno. I’m perfectly predisposed to believe that there could be serious problems with Coca Cola’s corporate behavior in India and elsewhere. But I also think that Swarthmore qua Swarthmore should set a high standard for truth seeking prior to making accusations and taking action.

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