[Marxism] David North versus Google

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 27 09:32:23 MDT 2017


NY Times, Sept. 27 2017
As Google Fights Fake News, Voices on the Margins Raise Alarm
By DAISUKE WAKABAYASHI

SAN FRANCISCO — When David North, the editorial chairman of the World 
Socialist Web Site, noticed a drop in the site’s traffic in April, he 
initially chalked it up to news fatigue over President Trump or a shift 
in political consciousness.

But when he dug into the numbers, Mr. North said, he found a clearer 
explanation: Google had stopped redirecting search queries to the site. 
He discovered that the top search terms that once brought people to the 
World Socialist Web Site were now coming up empty.

“This is not an accident,” Mr. North said. “This is some form of 
deliberate intervention.”

Accusations that Google has tampered with search results are not 
uncommon and date back to the earliest days of its search engine. But 
they are taking on new life amid concerns that technology behemoths are 
directly — or indirectly — censoring controversial subjects in their 
response to concerns over so-called fake news and the 2016 presidential 
election.

In April, Google announced an initiative called Project Owl to provide 
“algorithmic updates to surface more authoritative content” and stamp 
out fake news stories from its search results.

To some, that was an uncomfortable step toward Google becoming an 
arbiter of what is and is not a trustworthy news source.

“They’re really skating on thin ice,” said Michael Bertini, a search 
strategist at iQuanti, a digital marketing agency. “They’re controlling 
what users see. If Google is controlling what they deem to be fake news, 
I think that’s bias.”

Despite Google’s insistence that its search algorithm undergoes a 
rigorous testing process to ensure that its results do not reflect 
political, gender, racial or ethnic bias, there is growing political 
support for regulating Google and other tech giants like public 
utilities and forcing it to disclose how exactly its arrives at search 
results.

Most people have little understanding of how Google’s search engine 
ranks different sites, what it chooses to include or exclude, and how it 
picks the top results among hundreds of billions of pages. And Google 
tightly guards the mathematical equations behind it all — the rest of 
the world has to take their word that it is done in an unbiased manner.

“The complexity of ranking and rating is always going to lead to some 
lack of understanding for people outside of the company,” said Frank 
Pasquale, an information law professor at the University of Maryland. 
“The problem is that a lot of people aren’t willing to give them the 
benefit of the doubt.” In his book, “The Black Box Society,” Mr. 
Pasquale warned about the potential risks from an overreliance on secret 
algorithms that control what information we see and how critical 
decisions are made.

As the dominant search engine, with an estimated 90 percent global 
market share, Google was criticized by both the right and the left of 
the political world during the 2016 election.

In June 2016, a video from the pop culture site SourceFed accused Google 
of manipulating automatically completed search suggestions to favor 
Hillary Clinton. Google denied the claim, but right-wing media seized on 
the video as an example that the company was tipping the scales in her 
favor.

In the days after the election, the top Google search results for “final 
election vote count 2016” was a link to a story that wrongly stated that 
Mr. Trump, who won the Electoral College, had also defeated Mrs. Clinton 
in the popular vote.

In the research that led to the creation of Project Owl, Google found 
that a small fraction of its search results — about 0.25 percent of 
daily traffic — were linking to intentionally misleading, false or 
offensive information. For a company that aims to deliver the most 
relevant information for all queries, that constituted a crisis.

Google said it had added more detailed examples of problematic pages 
into the guidelines used by human raters to determine what is a good 
search result and what is a bad one. Google said its global staff of 
more than 10,000 raters do not determine search rankings, but their 
judgments help inform how the algorithm performs in the future.

Google has often said that it cannot reveal too much or people would use 
that information to try to game the rankings. The opacity around 
Google’s algorithm has given birth to a cottage industry of search 
engine optimization experts who dissect the company’s comments.

To assuage criticism about that lack of transparency, Google made public 
its guidelines for search quality in 2013. Pandu Nayak, a Google fellow 
who focuses on search quality, said disclosing the guidelines is more 
meaningful.

“The actual algorithm is not as important as what the algorithm is 
trying to do,” said Mr. Nayak. “Being completely transparent of what 
you’re trying to achieve is the central goal because how you accomplish 
that can change.”

Google said hundreds of factors go into its search algorithm and the 
formula is also constantly evolving. The company said it conducted 
150,000 search experiments and implemented 1,600 changes last year.

This is why it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why search traffic plummets 
for a site like the World Socialist Web Site, which calls itself the 
“online newspaper of the international Trotskyist movement.” Mr. North, 
the site’s chairman, said traffic coming in from search is down 70 
percent since April, citing data from Alexa, a web traffic analytics 
firm owned by Amazon.com.

In an open letter to Google last month, Mr. North traced his site’s 
traffic decline to Project Owl. Mr. North said he believed that Google 
was blacklisting the site, using concerns over fake news as a cover to 
suppress opinions from socialist, antiwar or left-wing websites and 
block news that Google doesn’t want covered.

In mid-April, a Google search for “socialism vs. capitalism” brought 
back one of the site’s links on the first results page but, by August, 
that same search didn’t feature any of its links. The site said 145 of 
the top 150 search terms that had redirected people to the site in April 
are now devoid of its links.

“They should be asked to explain how they’re doing it,” Mr. North said. 
“If they say we’re not doing anything, that’s simply not credible.”

Mr. North said that Google has not responded to his claims. Google 
declined to comment on the World Socialist Web Site.

Mr. North argued the drop-off in traffic is the result of Google 
directing users toward mainstream media organizations, including The New 
York Times. The World Socialist Web Site claimed that search referral 
traffic had fallen since April at a variety of other left-wing, 
progressive, socialist or antiwar publications like AlterNet and 
Consortiumnews.

The New York Times could not find the same level of traffic declines at 
all of those publications, based on data from SimilarWeb, a web 
analytics firm. Traffic coming from search engines for the World 
Socialist Web Site was down 34 percent during the months of May to July, 
compared with the preceding three months, according to SimilarWeb. 
Traffic that did not come from search was up 1 percent during the same 
period.

Mr. North said his site provides critical analysis for current events 
and it has nothing in common with sites peddling blatantly untrue 
stories. But he said he is opposed to any actions taken by Google under 
the pretext of stopping fake news.

“I’m against censorship in any form,” he said. “It’s up to people what 
they want to read. It’s not going to stop with the World Socialist Web 
Site. It’s going to expand and spread.”



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