Search Query as a Weapon


Sometime after I started this blog, I looked up the stats page to see how was the viewership. I didn’t expect large numbers, but I wanted to check if anyone was reading it at all. It turned out that, at least officially (in a way that would register in WordPress stats), not that many were (except for short periods), considering that even personal Facebook pages or single (personal) YouTube videos can often have very large viewership. At the same time, a lot of people seemed to be aware of what I was writing, because either the content of my posts or the blog itself were often referred to in my conversations with other people. That’s a different story, which I am not going into today.

I also noticed that on the stats page, there was a place where you could see the search queries that were put in the Search box of your blog (blog-specific queries, not web-wide queries), which is supposed to help people find content in a specific blog. It seems only I use this box for this purpose. Because, what I saw was that most of the searches were completely irrelevant to the blog. They were not attempts to find content in the blog at all.

Over the period of last 15 years, I have maintained several websites, one being my personal webpage (now defunct), one an activist website (Hindi version of ZNet, now defunct), a website for an Open Source toolkit that I had developed (also defunct) etc. I was maintaining these at my own expense and now I can’t afford to.

On all these, I noticed the same pattern. No queries to actually find content. They were all either insults hurled at me in this oblique and anonymous manner or sometimes they even sounded like threats. I even mentioned this to some of my colleagues.

As a result, when I joined post-doc in 2012 in another country, I was already aware of weaponization of local (e.g. blog-specific) search queries.

Right from the day I arrived in that country, I had strange experiences. At the workplace, no one would even talk to me (except one Indian post-doc who joined roughly at the same time and occasionally one or two others who seemed to be sympathetic to me, all girls, or as we say in India, ladies), or when they rarely did, they were not really talking, there were doing something else. More about that later.

There was one person (younger than me, but relatively high in the hierarchy of the lab). When we passed by, he would make what sounded like unsavoury comments clearly directed at me, because there was no one else in sight except his friend(s). He would look at me so I knew he was commenting about me.

One day, while I was coming to the office, perhaps a day I was not feeling well or was somehow not in a good mood, he and one of his friends passed me by (no one nearby again). He looked at me and sort of shouted something like ‘le pouet a vendu’. I could guess the meaning, or at least the word ‘vendu’, but still when I reached the computer, I typed in the sentence into Google Translate, according to which the translation was ‘the squealer (or squeaker) has been sold’. This was soon after I had joined the job. Right now, today, I tried again after all these years and Google now says ‘squirrel’.  I positively remember the word ‘pouet’, not just because I heard it used near me many times again, but also because I was so fed up with it that I once put it in one of my passwords. It is probably an ambiguous colloquial word.

When I had joined, I was given a copy of the contract and I was asked to go through it, which I did quickly, as I can read fast. What caught my attention was that it clearly mentioned the fact (in 2012) that various ‘tracking devices’ were placed in various places and the activities of the employees will be monitored. This was not very surprising in itself to me, but the fact that it was clearly written was. This was a government research centre. I had already experienced online and other kinds of surveillance.

So, that day, that comment really got on my nerves and finally I thought I should respond in some way, but what could I do? I was in a foreign country. I needed the job and I had not even yet received my work permit (which is another story). I had no friends there. So I remembered the weaponized queries which were being used against me even then. I had also once been to a Google office and had seen Google search queries being displayed on a large board in the welcome room. I then opened a Google search page on my work terminal and typed the following (perhaps not exact words, but very close):

Why does X alway keep yapping at Singh? What has Singh ever done to X? Is there a secret history between them?

There is also a story behind why I used ‘Singh’ and not my first or second name, or both. There is even a story behind why I used the word ‘yapping’.

The office of the head of the lab was right in front of my room and from where I was asked to sit for work, I could clearly see him through glass walls. I could even see his computer, which was in a corner, though obviously I could not read what was on the screen from that distance. He could see me too and perhaps that was the point of making me sit there.

Barely a minute after my typing in the query, a person (also a post-doc, I think) whose responsibilities included working as kind of systems administrator for the lab, came to the head’s office and said something to him. I was expecting something like this to happen, because I already knew how things work in places with total surveillance. From where I was sitting, it seemed he was reporting to him something about which something should be done. He asked the head to go to the computer and have a look at something. The head did that, read something. He too seemed concerned, but he basically shrugged his shoulders.

From that moment on, person X never made any comments to me any more. He never even acknowledged my presence. Not that the people there started treating me any better. In some ways, it only got worse.

This was not all. When I was nearing the completion of my contract, I went to my supervisor and asked him if my contract will be renewed. He evaded the question first, but then he said he will tell me sometime later. Later, when I asked again, we had a long conversation (which is also worth going into later), where he gave various reasons, but clearly said that my work was not the problem. Finally, when I countered all his arguments, he said in any case he will not be associated with the lab soon and X will be in-charge of the lab.

He then said, I can’t see you working together with X. I had never mentioned  X to him or to anyone else.

I never even had a conversation with X. I had never said anything to him, nor even commented back at him, except that search query. There was no reason why anyone would say that my relations with him were bad (or good). In fact, there were no relations of any kind, as far as I was concerned and, if he had talked to me and wanted to work with me, I would most probably have agreed, even after that. After all, I did not really have relations (good or bad) even with my supervisor. We just discussed some research questions, mostly over email.

I did respect him (the supervisor), though. He is a seasoned and very good researcher and certainly not a bad person. The same goes for the head. X is also an accomplished researcher, although I hesitate to say that he is a good person.

Did that query cost me the extension?

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A couple of days after I started keeping the Zersetzung 21C Journal on my blog, there was this local query in my blog Search box:

Screenshot_2019-08-03_13-39-20

Although I have no idea what it means, it (the first one) is clearly not a genuine query.

***

And this when I had gone to my home town where my parents reside:

Search Query Abuse

Is it (the first one), as it appears to be, just vile abuse? Or is supposed to be some kind of twisted sermon in vile abusive language (and with the same kind of sick thinking). Is it also a some kind of Skinnerian or Zersetzung device?

***

Originally published at http://anileklavya.net on 3rd August, 2019. Updated on 13th August, 2019.

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