People would soon find out about it, talk about it on social media and write about it, and then resurface the original negative terms Johnson’s team were trying to quell. "All this talk [about Johnson's gaming of the system] on Twitter has a self-propelling snowball effect," says Zelezny.
And searches for many of the terms – including "Boris Johnson bus" – still show images of the controversial Brexit campaign bus, the result of images being tagged with the term and no new ones to replace them.
"Even if it was a deliberate approach, it’s unlikely to work in the long run because all that other [negative] content is still there, and unless you take all those other factors [such as personalised searches and tagged images] into account, you’re only going to get partial results," says Rodgers. "You might make a slight difference in the short term, but in the long term it’s not going to make a massive difference."
The ability to manipulate Google search results has become more difficult as the search engine has become more nuanced in how it presents results, says Zelezny. Google is constantly tweaking its search algorithms and the factors that dictate which news articles and websites will be most prominently displayed. The company does not provide detailed breakdowns of how its search results are processed.
"Manipulation is much harder because Google knows there are people trying to manipulate it and it’s a threat to the quality of results," Zelezny explains. "People will go to other search engines if they get bad ones."
However, there have been precedents of politicians taking over key phrases in search terms. Search for "completely wrong" on Google Image Search in 2012 and you’d be presented with images of Mitt Romney, after he used the phrase in a much-publicised apology for saying 47 per cent of Americans saw themselves as victims.
On a more fundamental level, Johnson seemingly doesn’t have to worry about the presence of negative headlines. Although 43 per cent of people believe Johnson "probably acted improperly" by not declaring his connection to Arcuri, and only 22 per cent believe he’s honest, the Conservatives are still the most popular party in the polls.
"He’s not really concerned about the personal stories that have been around for some time about him," explains Delia Dumitrescu, a lecturer in media and cultural politics at the University of East Anglia. "He’s actually banking on the fact that this isn’t going to touch him."
As for his odd obsession over buses, that too is part of the everyman persona he’s trying to craft. "He’s trying to tell his supporters he’s also approachable," says Dumitrescu. "I think he has succeeded to some extent. His background is elitist. He’s not like most people. He’s very unique. He hasn’t known poverty. But he just wants to give this image of himself as being one of the regular guys, a bit weird but likeable, very likeable."
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