War on “fake news” sees Google mov­ing to sti­fle sites with dis­sent­ing views

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - ED­I­TOR'S NOTES

THE IN­TER­NET HAS BE­COME an in­valu­able tool for post­ing pic­tures of our cats. Well, there are a few other uses for the tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing the spread of all kinds of in­for­ma­tion, some of it la­belled “fake news.”

Hailed as de­moc­ra­tiz­ing the flow of in­for­ma­tion – two-way and de­cen­tral­ized, just the op­po­site of what we’ve seen his­tor­i­cally – the In­ter­net has mas­sively re­shaped the way we live and do busi­ness, for in­stance. It’s also be­come a bo­nanza for the dis­sem­i­na­tors of pro­pa­ganda and col­lec­tors of data in­tent on strip­ping away our pri­vacy for their own gain, fi­nan­cial and/or po­lit­i­cal.

We’re com­plicit in that, flock­ing to sites like Face­book, where we’re lay­ing our­selves bare to the world.

Face­book, like many In­ter­net sites, ex­ist to har­vest in­for­ma­tion, sell it to ad­ver­tis­ers and tar­get you with per­son­al­ized ads. Track­ing is the norm, as is col­lect­ing as many de­tails as pos­si­ble of what each of us does on­line. There’s noth­ing neu­tral about most of it: this is not just a so­ci­ol­ogy study, though, of course, it’s that too.

The ubiq­ui­tous Google is an even larger col­lec­tor of data and in­vader of pri­vacy. More per­ni­cious, it’s in­creas­ingly a cen­sor, fil­ter­ing search in­for­ma­tion for its own gain – di­rect­ing web surfers to its own or af­fil­i­ated sites, for which it was fined $2.7 bil­lion by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion this sum­mer – and for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons.

Last spring, re­act­ing to the Don­ald Trump-driven “fake news” is­sue, Google al­tered its search al­go­rithms in a way that fil­ters out many sites from user searches. Sites on both the right and, par­tic­u­larly, the left now ar­gue they’re be­ing blocked or pushed back pages in searches that are per­formed.

The screened rightlean­ing sites have tended to be more on the fringe, gen­er­at­ing con­tent deemed hate-re­lated. On the left, even pro­gres­sive sites long used to high Google rank­ings have been feel­ing the pinch.

Un­der its new anti-fak­e­news pro­gram, Google al­go­rithms have in the past few months moved so­cial­ist, anti-war and pro­gres­sive web­sites from pre­vi­ously prom­i­nent po­si­tions in Google searches to po­si­tions up to 50 search re­sult pages from the first page, es­sen­tially re­mov­ing them from the search re­sults any searcher will see. Coun­terPunch, World So­cial­ist Web Site, Democ­racy Now, Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, Wik­ileaks are just a few of the web­sites which have ex­pe­ri­enced se­vere re­duc­tions in their re­turns from Google searches, re­ports Coun­terPunch.

The World So­cial­ist Web Site re­ports that it has been tar­geted by Google’s new search al­go­rithm: In April 2017, 422,460 vis­its to the WSWS orig­i­nated from Google searches, but the fig­ure dropped to an es­ti­mated 120,000 by July, a 70 per cent de­cline.

“Now Google, at the be­hest of its friends in Wash­ing­ton, is ac­tively cen­sor­ing – es­sen­tially block­ing ac­cess to – any web­sites which seek to warn Amer­i­can work­ers of the on­go­ing ef­fort to fur­ther at­tack their in­comes, so­cial ser­vices, and life con­di­tions by the U.S. cen­tral govern­ment, and which seek to warn against the im­pend­ing war­fare be­tween U.S.-led NATO and other forces against coun­tries like Iran, Rus­sia, and China, which have in no way threat­ened the U.S. state or its peo­ple,” writes Eric Som­mer at Coun­terPunch.

“In­ter­net users do­ing searches on Google, since the al­go­rithms were put in place, are di­verted from sites such as Truthdig and di­rected to main­stream pub­li­ca­tions such as The New York Times. The news or­ga­ni­za­tions and cor­po­ra­tions that are im­pos­ing this cen­sor­ship have strong links to the Demo­cratic Party. They are cheer­lead­ers for Amer­i­can im­pe­rial projects and global cap­i­tal­ism. Be­cause they are strug­gling in the new me­dia en­vi­ron­ment for prof­itabil­ity, they have an eco­nomic in­cen­tive to be part of the witch hunt,” notes au­thor and jour­nal­ist Chris Hedges of the search en­gine changes.

Hedges ar­gues such cen­sor­ship tac­tics are the work of an es­tab­lish­ment – of which the large tech com­pa­nies are cer­tainly part – that knows it has lost all cred­i­bil­ity with the think­ing pub­lic.

“The elites face an un­pleas­ant choice. They could im­pose harsh con­trols to pro­tect the sta­tus quo or veer left­ward to­ward so­cial­ism to ame­lio­rate the mount­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal in­jus­tices en­dured by most of the pop­u­la­tion. But a move left­ward, es­sen­tially re­in­stat­ing and ex­pand­ing the New Deal pro­grams they have de­stroyed, would im­pede cor­po­rate power and cor­po­rate prof­its. So in­stead the elites, in­clud­ing the Demo­cratic Party lead­er­ship, have de­cided to quash pub­lic de­bate.”

At­tempts at man­u­fac­tur­ing con­sent are noth­ing new, as doc­u­mented by the metic­u­lous work of Noam Chom­sky and oth­ers, long marginal­ized by the tra­di­tional me­dia that has be­come strictly cor­po­ratist. The me­dia have be­come more lap­dog than watch­dog. Rather than tak­ing on power, it be­comes an apol­o­gist for it, a role now be­ing adopted by the likes of Google and Face­book.

The tra­di­tional view of the me­dia speak­ing truth to power, hold­ing lead­ers ac­count­able, has cer­tainly been un­der­mined by a va­ri­ety of fac­tors, in­clud­ing the con­cen­tra­tion of cor­po­rate own­er­ship. That’s be­ing re­peated in the elec­tronic age.

The In­ter­net pro­vided some­thing of a work­around for groups of all ide­olo­gies that felt left out of main­stream news cov­er­age. Now, with in­creased fil­ter­ing – aka cen­sor­ship – an agenda is yet again be­ing pressed.

Clearly, there are all kinds of un­savoury in­for­ma­tion to be found on­line, some of it out­right crim­i­nal. There are lies and li­bels left, right and cen­ter. Where the search en­gine changes are said to tar­get the worst of such hate­ful and fake “news” sources, the wider net that catches up many sites crit­i­cal of es­tab­lished or­tho­doxy is not in­ad­ver­tent.

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