Read

User menu

Search form

Google's Casualties: Is There A Corporate-State Conspiracy To Censor Progressive Websites?

Google's Casualties: Is There A Corporate-State Conspiracy To Censor Progressive Websites?
Mon, 8/14/2017 - by Chris Paulus

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.

 

Sign Up

Article Tabs

Affordable Care Act, pre-existing conditions, universal healthcare, individual mandate repeal, GOP tax cuts, Obamacare, health coverage

That element of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, along with other actions taken by the Trump Administration, are contributing to higher premiums, less coverage and more uninsured.

Homrich 9, Detroit water shutoffs, Detroit water crisis, water privatization, Great Lakes Water Authority, water as a human right

The activists working hardest against the water crisis in Detroit are high school students, college professors, priests and volunteers – all disrupting a system that side-stepped popular votes.

Farmers from across India take part in the Kisan Mukti March organised in Delhi by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee. | Sajjad Hussain/AFP

“Today the farmer is a political force. Those who ignore our voices do so at their own peril.”

Jasmine Revolution, Arab Spring, Tunisian revolution, Tunisian constitution, Tunisian reforms

A wave of protests and progress has swept the north African nation since its Jasmine Revolution ushered in the Arab Spring eight years ago. Tunisia is still blazing a democratic path forward.

Here's what climate refugees need to make it through a disaster. How would you fare?

2020 census, citizenship questions, citizenship status, illegal immigrants, law violations, Administrative Procedures Act

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman found that Commerce Sec. Wilbur Ross committed "egregious" violations of the Administrative Procedures Act by adding the citizenship question on the 2020 census.

Green New Deal, climate crisis, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez

The Green New Deal provides an opportunity for transformational changes, not just reform, but changes that fundamentally solve the crises we face at all levels, in our towns and cities, states and nationally.

Affordable Care Act, pre-existing conditions, universal healthcare, individual mandate repeal, GOP tax cuts, Obamacare, health coverage

That element of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, along with other actions taken by the Trump Administration, are contributing to higher premiums, less coverage and more uninsured.

government shutdown, Trump shutdown, 1%, FEMA, National Association of Realtors

A wide range of interests across the economic spectrum are jeopardized. But not all interests are suffering equally: Wealthier and more powerful interest groups have been granted preference by the government.

Yevgeniya Pokhilko, an elementary school teacher, holds a sign. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of educators are demanding smaller class sizes and better resources: ‘We’re here to stand up for our students’

Jasmine Revolution, Arab Spring, Tunisian revolution, Tunisian constitution, Tunisian reforms

A wave of protests and progress has swept the north African nation since its Jasmine Revolution ushered in the Arab Spring eight years ago. Tunisia is still blazing a democratic path forward.

Posted 6 days 26 min ago
government shutdown, Trump shutdown, government regulations

"Corporate lawbreakers are going unpunished, safety inspections are being postponed, discrimination charges are going uninvestigated, polluters are not being held in check, financial fraudsters are not being policed."

Posted 6 days 31 min ago
Farmers from across India take part in the Kisan Mukti March organised in Delhi by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee. | Sajjad Hussain/AFP

“Today the farmer is a political force. Those who ignore our voices do so at their own peril.”

Posted 4 days 11 hours ago
corporate tax breaks, tax cuts for the wealthy, income inequality, GOP tax cut

Wealthy Americans finance the federal government mainly by lending it money and collecting interest payments on those loans, profiting when the rest of us pay them back. It's time to follow the money.

Posted 4 days 11 hours ago
rising inequality, income inequality, monopolies, corporate profits, CEO pay

The larger our corporations become, the more unequal our societies become. But tougher antitrust enforcement and other legislative solutions could slow our rates of corporate concentration.

Posted 4 days 11 hours ago
Jasmine Revolution, Arab Spring, Tunisian revolution, Tunisian constitution, Tunisian reforms

A wave of protests and progress has swept the north African nation since its Jasmine Revolution ushered in the Arab Spring eight years ago. Tunisia is still blazing a democratic path forward.

Teachers and supporters of public education march against education funding cuts during the March for Public Education in Los Angeles, California on December 15, 2018.  Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The second-largest school district in the country joins a growing national movement for better school funding and higher teacher

government shutdown, Trump shutdown, government regulations

"Corporate lawbreakers are going unpunished, safety inspections are being postponed, discrimination charges are going uninvestigated, polluters are not being held in check, financial fraudsters are not being policed."

Yevgeniya Pokhilko, an elementary school teacher, holds a sign. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of educators are demanding smaller class sizes and better resources: ‘We’re here to stand up for our students’

Farmers from across India take part in the Kisan Mukti March organised in Delhi by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee. | Sajjad Hussain/AFP

“Today the farmer is a political force. Those who ignore our voices do so at their own peril.”