By Claire Connelly
Google has come under scrutiny by free-speech organisations for shutting down neo-Nazi website, Daily Stormer, seemingly too distracted to notice the tech giant has been waging a censorship campaign against progressive news organisations that publish content which conflicts with the narrative of the Washington establishment, along with Facebook and Twitter on the grounds of ‘fake news’.
While web-hosting services have been criticised for cancelling the registration of neo-Nazi website, Daily Stormer, progressive left-leaning sites are losing Google ranking and traffic because of a deliberate move to censor “fake” news by the internet search giant.
New data released by World Socialist Websites (WSWS) revealed that sites such as Wikileaks, The Intercept, Electronic Frontiers Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Organisation, CounterPunch and many other organisations with the audacity to provide context about the activities of federal governments not reported in mainstream publications have experienced a significant drop in traffic after Google altered its algorithm.
(WSWS is an online news and information service founded by the International Committee of the Fourth International, the leadership of the world socialist movement).
Earlier this week, internet hosting provider, GoDaddy, announced it had cancelled US neo-Nazi website, Daily Stormer, for posting an attack on Heather Heyer, the protester who was murdered at the Klan rally in Charlottesville last week. Google and CloudFlare likewise cancelled its registration after the site tried to move its hosting over to their respective services.
But while these hosting services are being congratulated by some – and condemned by others on free-speech grounds – for ensuring that those looking to commit violence have to work slightly harder to get access to their like-minded Nazi communities, those who own the means of transmission – namely Google, Facebook and Twitter – are still preventing the rest of us from accessing information that allows people to make sense of the world around us.
Earlier this month, Google altered its algorithm – allegedly in an attempt to address the ‘fake news’ problem – and in doing so, a broad array of anti-establishment news organisations, whistleblower, civil-rights and anti-war websites were censored from its search listings. But most people were too distracted by the opinions of some low-level engineer on Google’s diversity hiring policies and its intolerance of conservative views in the workplace to take notice.
The data released by WSWS shows that since Google altered its algorithm, Wikileaks experienced a 30% decline in traffic from Google searches. Democracy Now fell by 36%. Truthout dropped by 25%. Its own traffic dropped by 67% percent over the same period. Alternet saw a 63% decline in traffic. Media Matters saw a 36% drop in traffic. Counterpunch.org fell by 21%. The Intercept fell by 19%.
In May, WSWS was ranked 5th in Google searches for the keyword ‘socialism’. Today the WSWS is nowhere to be found in the top 200 searches for the same keyword. In addition, Google blocked every one of WSW’s top 45 search terms.
Aaron Kaufman, director of development at progressive news outlet, Common Dreams said that Google Search as a percentage of total traffic to the Common Dreams website has decreased nearly 50 percent since May.
When human bias mistakes truth for bullshit
In a blog post published on April 25th, Google’s chief search engineer, Ben Gomez framed the issue as a change to the tech giant’s technical procedures in response to “the phenomenon of fake news”.
“The most high profile of these issues is the phenomenon of ‘fake news,’ where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information,” Gomez wrote. “While this problem is different from issues in the past, our goal remains the same—to provide people with access to relevant information from the most reliable sources available. And while we may not always get it right, we’re making good progress in tackling the problem. But in order to have long-term and impactful changes, more structural changes in Search are needed.”
Gomez revealed that Google had recruited more than 10,000 “evaluators” hired to judge the quality of various websites, “real people who assess the quality of Google’s search results—give us feedback on our experiments,” though the chief search engineer did not identify the “evaluators” or explain the criteria against which websites are judged.
The ultimate irony: Google has seemingly allowed its evaluators to exercise their own biases when assessing the truth, accuracy and validity of these websites, and in doing so, are censoring essential information inconvenient to the narrative of the Washington establishment.
Corporate regulation and shadow-blocking
Google is not the only player in this censorship game. Earlier last year, anti-establishment information services – Renegade Inc included – experienced a 20% drop in traffic to its Facebook pages, after the social-network altered its algorithm, again, allegedly in an attempt to crack down on ‘fake news’.
And as some excellent reporting by Reveal News’ Aaron Sankin has demonstrated, Facebook’s moderator army is likewise using the social network’s reporting system to shut down dissenting voices, particularly activists, particularly activists of colour.
Likewise, Twitter is allegedly shadow-blocking those of the left and right who it perceives to be tweeting content that sits outside of the mainstream. Renegade Inc has not been immune from this sidelining.
While Twitter has formal mechanisms for trolls and those who post abusive content – in which case it will notify users they have been suspended and provide explanations as to why – shadow-blocking is a whole different ball game. ‘Shadow-blocking’ – or ‘shadow-banning’ – are terms used to describe a more informal mode of censorship whereby particular users will simply not show up when you search for their username. Certain tweets may disappear into the ether, and your content may only be visible to people who follow you but will not show up on any Twitter feed, even if after it is re-tweeted.
Russell Bentley, a former American soldier fighting fascism in the Ukraine under the Donetsk People’s Republic – a self-declared, Russian backed separatist state – had his Twitter account shut down two days ago after a sustained campaign of targeted harassment and death threats (prohibited by Twitter’s terms of service) by pro-nazi propagandists.
Most notably, Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic, recently fell victim to a shadow-ban by Twitter, allegedly for his views on Trump.
So too was Nicholas Sarwark, chair of the Libertarian National Committee who told Renegade Inc that for weeks his own Twitter username does not show up when he searched for it from other accounts. Likewise his tweets disappeared, and were not visible to those outside of his network.
Meanwhile, those on the right claim their web traffic is also being restricted. Alt-right website Breitbart claimed both Google and Facebook had attempted to defund its site and those like it by altering Google Adsense and Facebook Audience Network.
Corporate regulation means never having to explain yourself
It is difficult to know whether these instances of censorship are a deliberate, or unintended side-effect of a fake-news crackdown because, unlike governments who have some semblance of an obligation to explain themselves, companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are under no obligation to be transparent about their reasoning or methods, claiming intellectual property rights over proprietary information, (their algorithms).
The result is a corporate regulation of the internet by companies with no obligation to explain how or why it changes its feeds or search listings.
Dr Monique Mann, researcher at Queensland University of Technology’s Crime and Justice Research Centre, and Director of Australian Privacy Foundation told Renegade Inc that these issues of censorship relate to broader issues around bias in computer systems.
“These decisions aren’t being made by formal enforcement bodies, or any kind of body with authorised legal powers,” she said. “This process is occurring by transnational companies and platforms, these tech giants are acting like big regulators.”
Dr Mann says these instances of censorship by algorithm raises questions over trade secrets and proprietary rights.
“These trade secrets and algorithms are how they operate,” she said. “But they introduce additional challenges and barriers to transparency and accountability of algorithms, themselves protected under international property law.”
Hypothetically Google is applying a colour blind algorithm. Dr Mann says the question is over what happens when algorithms are built by “digital duopolies” to match societal expectations.
“Google is deciding what is an acceptable story, and what is unacceptable, whose views and voices are preferenced, and whose are silenced,” she said. “There is no transparency and accountability. These companies are protected by very serious financial investments and fields of law.”
Dr Monique Mann told Renegade Inc that there has been a suggestion that some tweets made by President Trump violate Twitter’s terms of service, because they contain hate-speech that targets certain groups and minority populations: particularly Muslims and the LGBTQI community given his recent attempt to enact a Muslim ban and deny health care to LGBTQI servicemen, women and those who identify as neither, or have them thrown out of the service altogether.
“But are Twitter likely to block Trump for violating its terms of service?,” she asked. “These are all very loaded and difficult decisions around what constitutes hate speech vs political expression. These are very contested issues and I do not think there are any easy answers here.”
A battle for the heart and soul of the web
Dr Matthew Rimmer, Professor of IP and Innovation Law and Queensland University of Technology told Renegade Inc that how these companies manage information is becoming increasingly important.
“Their duties and responsibilities are becoming quite significant,” he said. “There is a battle for the heart and soul of the internet in many ways.”
Tim Berners Lee, (computer scientist and inventor of the World Wide Web), commented recently that the open system he helped create has come under threat from various corporate players who have enacted site blocking and surveillance. He said it is important to address the balance away from big IT companies and other corporations and national governments. He wants to recover the emancipatory potential of the internet and World Wide Web. There are some larger questions involved in terms of the future evolution of the regime.”
Dr Mann said that automation through algorithm is ‘falling into a trap’ that is not going to find us any easy answers.
“These processes and the way they operate create a range of additional problems,” she said. “I don’t think technology in this situation is going to be the panacea for social issues.”
Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone
It is worth mentioning here that nothing Renegade Inc publishes is anything close to ‘fake news’ and we take exception at being treated as such. Rather we, and other like-minded publications that sit outside of the mainstream, are committed to providing much needed context that you won’t find in the New York Times or Washington Post, for example, publications that are far too cozy with intelligence communities.
You won’t find the Post or the Times reporting on the fact that the US and its allies are funding terror groups like ISIS, al-qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor will you find them reporting on the American interests at play in Venezuela, or Syria, Iraq, Iran or Libya. Or how freedom is a concept that has been co-opted by right-wing ideology.
Censoring access to sites like ours is what allows people to continue believing that America is fighting a war on terrorism, when in reality, it is funding, arming and training terrorist organisations to fight a proxy war on Middle East Socialism.
You won’t find corporate media reporting on how the economy really works, or the countries, governments, companies and individuals involved in the financialisation of the economy, or the role of central banking in the Global Financial Crisis.
Moreover, there would be no need for any of these services if establishment media could be trusted to provide readers with enough information, background and context to make rational decisions.
But when you accept the claims of the intelligence community as lore, when you accept that market freedom is the same as actual freedom and not a tool used to trick people into accepting permanent financial insecurity, the entire narrative for understanding the world and how we came to find ourselves on the sidelines of history, powerless to the whims of the new economic order, becomes a fiction. The system that took 35-years to build has worked perfectly, according to the rules upon which it has been set, and now it is being defended. So long as sites like these continue to be censored, we will never know the real terms of our enslavement, or how we let it happen.