fake news

Google’s casualties: Is there a corporate-state conspiracy to censor progressive websites?

Originally posted on August 14, 2017 on occupy.com

Back around December 2016, Google caught some flak because its search box Autocomplete function brought up disturbing terms like “Holocaust denial,” connected with untrustworthy websites, to the top query results list. In response, late in April 2017, Google announced it was changing its search algorithms to combat the dissemination of fake news and conspiracy theories.

“The most high profile of these [Internet issues] is the phenomenon of ‘fake news,’” Google claimed in a blog post, “where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information…We’re taking the next step toward continuing to surface more high-quality content from the web. This includes improvements in Search ranking, easier ways for people to provide direct feedback, and greater transparency about how Search works.”

But as it turns out, there may be other casualties in these seemingly noble, well-intentioned goals.

According to some reports, the upgrade to Google’s search algorithm has resulted in a significant reduction in traffic to various socialist, progressive and anti-war web sites. Democracy Now!, Common Dreams, Wikileaks, Truth-Out, Alternet, Counterpunch and The Intercept, among others, have registered a substantial decline in readership and traffic since the new Google search algorithm was established in the spring.

“The World Socialist Web Site has obtained statistical data from SEMrush estimating the decline of traffic generated by Google searches for 13 sites with substantial readerships,” reports wsws.org. The site goes on to claim these specific drops in readership since April:

In a separate post, the website claims that The Real News saw its search traffic drop by 37 percent, while the website of prominent digital rights leader Richard Stallman has seen a 24 percent decline.

But before we explore the censorship casualties from this new-found policy, we should first briefly look at how the algorithm actually works.

First and foremost, according to Google’s own blog, Google hires “raters” and “evaluators” as part of its screening process to determine what site links are valid enough to rise to the top of the results page. The company’s updated Search Quality Rater Guidelines detail how Google raters flag websites according to different criteria. The guidelines are surprisingly succinct: the document coaches raters on how to find main content, supplementary content, advertisements, website designers, contact information and sources. It also offers criteria of what it considers to be “highest quality” pages to “lowest quality” pages, with gradients of “high,” “medium” and “low” in between.

The guidelines encourage raters to search for examples of primarily two things: the established reputation of a site, and examples of what Google calls “EAT,” or Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. Websites are then ranked on the prevalence of these criteria.

At issue is the fact that many of the left-leaning websites may not meet the above criteria, and are therefore flagged as “low quality” or “lowest quality,” dooming them to a demotion on Google’s query results pages. Terms like “misleading” and “not authoritative” are often listed as the reasons for designating certain websites with a low quality score. Many of the aforementioned progressive websites have won few if any awards, rely on advertisement for support, and may or may not quote so-called “experts” in all of their articles – leading to their “low quality” descriptions by Google.

Additionally, the Google search box now allows users to report inaccurate and potentially offensive Autocomplete lines or snippets. While the idea might sound great – everyday people can report terms, ideas and phrases deemed offensive in today’s cultural zeitgeist – there is no limit to how much one individual can report. Consequently, people driven by political or other motives can, and often do, flag certain websites or ideas as “offensive,” further driving down their credibility. For example, I can type in “socialism,” “new world order,” or “care bears,” and flag all those terms as offensive, therefore skewing the algorithmic data.

Surely the vast majority of us agree that Holocaust denial is a repugnant theory whose time has come to be extinguished. But is it a technology company’s responsibility to expunge that idea from our supposed free marketplace of ideas? More importantly, if a behemoth like Google can determine that Holocaust denial should be flushed from the first page of query results, can they also condemn other, less threatening ideas to the same fate?

The recent report by World Socialist Web Site raises a critical question that has yet to be answered: Are these socialist, progressive and anti-war websites being demoted simply because they are operating as low-budget enterprises, or is this trend part of a greater corporate-state conspiracy to attack freedom of expression and ideas? More discussion and investigation is needed on this matter, but the bottom line is this: I’d rather not leave it to Google to filter out my research on the topic based on what its algorithm deems “accredited,” “trustworthy,” or “authoritative.”

We as a society have firmly determined that Holocaust denial is an error of opinion based on its irrational, unsubstantiated and, quite frankly, offensive position. Citizens should bear the responsibility, and the power, to weed out these and other harmful ideas from our search engine lexicon. It shouldn’t be up to one of the planet’s most powerful corporations to determine what is safe for us to read and be exposed to. We do not need “raters” working for Google sifting through websites that could potentially mislead us – just as we did not need Google algorithms or raters to tell us that Holocaust denial is a bunk theory.

As John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes all insinuated in their allusion to the “marketplace of ideas”: error of opinion can be tolerated if reason is left to combat it.