Google is kicking stories from Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News into the basement. The Russian news outlets’ stories are to be deranked in the wake of Congress’ investigation into the country’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election, while Twitter has said “Nyet!” to taking more of their ad-buying rubles.
As the BBC reports, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, Chairman Eric Schmidt said that the deranking was a move against the spread of misinformation. He announced the move while speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum:
We’re well aware of this one, and we’re working on detecting this kind of scenario you’re describing and deranking those kinds of sites.
Schmidt specified RT and Sputnik. He said that while he doesn’t like censorship, he’s gung-ho about ranking – that is, after all, “what we do,” he said.
The Alphabet chief said that it’s a constant battle to stay ahead of those who want to game Google’s search algorithms. Just like the search giant is always tweaking its algorithms to detect “weaponized” information, those with an agenda are always looking to get “better tools too”.
He’s right: this is hard. Google Search’s job is to decide which web pages (and in what order) represent the best response to a given user query, and that’s no easy task. As it is, Google already makes a huge amount of decisions on our behalf. Those decisions regularly include de-ranking or penalizing sites that are slow, sites that are insecure, sites that have aggravating pop-up ads, sites that are gaming the system, sites that deliver little or no value, sites that are new, or sites that aren’t user friendly, for example.
Page ranking is a secret sauce, but search engine optimization experts will tell you that there are more than 200 factors that Google takes into account.
And now, the lead-balloon of deranking is going to be foisted onto news sites that US intelligence has labelled cogs in “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.” A report on Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election said that the publications “made increasingly favorable comments about” Trump as the campaign progressed “while consistently offering negative coverage” of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
Reporting on the FBI investigation into Russian propaganda, The Los Angeles Times in September quoted former correspondents who said that the FBI is absolutely right about the news outlets being propaganda outlets.
The newspaper quoted Andrew Feinberg, a former White House correspondent for Sputnik whom FBI agents interviewed for two hours in August about how much Russia pulled the strings at the publication:
[Sputnik] is not a news agency. It’s meant to look like one, but it’s propaganda.
Feinberg said that during his five months at Sputnik, his editors had no appetite for anything but stories about political conspiracies, making it clear that this was per orders from Moscow:
They always wanted to make the U.S. government look stupid. I was constantly told, ‘Moscow wanted this or Moscow wanted that.’
The publications vehemently deny being anything but independent news sources.
Sputnik and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan had this to say in a scornful statement:
Good to have Google on record as defying all logic and reason: facts aren’t allowed if they come from RT, ‘because Russia’ – even if we have Google on Congressional record saying they’ve found no manipulation of their platform or policy violations by RT.
Both Sputnik and RT last week registered with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) as foreign agents. They went kicking and screaming: It was either that or face potential felony charges of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Twitter, for its part, banned RT, Sputnik and all of their linked accounts from buying advertising, effective immediately as of the end of October.
Twitter said that it didn’t come to the decision lightly:
We… are taking this step now as part of our ongoing commitment to help protect the integrity of the user experience on Twitter.
Twitter said the move was made in light of the US intelligence community having named RT and Sputnik as state-sponsored election meddlers. The company’s planning to take the $1.9 million it’s made in global ads sales from RT since they became an advertiser in 2011, including $274,100 in 2016 US-based advertising, and donate it all to support external research into the use of Twitter in civic engagement and elections.