New data compiled by the World Socialist Web Site, with the assistance of other Internet-based news outlets and search technology experts, proves that a massive loss of readership observed by socialist, anti-war and progressive web sites over the past three months has been caused by a cumulative 45 percent decrease in traffic from Google searches.
The drop followed the implementation of changes in Google’s search evaluation protocols. In a statement issued on April 25, Ben Gomes, the company’s vice president for engineering, stated that Google’s update of its search engine would block access to “offensive” sites, while working to surface more “authoritative content.”
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. The results are as follows:
- wsws.org fell by 67 percent
- alternet.org fell by 63 percent
- globalresearch.ca fell by 62 percent
- consortiumnews.com fell by 47 percent
- socialistworker.org fell by 47 percent
- mediamatters.org fell by 42 percent
- commondreams.org fell by 37 percent
- internationalviewpoint.org fell by 36 percent
- democracynow.org fell by 36 percent
- wikileaks.org fell by 30 percent
- truth-out.org fell by 25 percent
- counterpunch.org fell by 21 percent
- theintercept.com fell by 19 percent
Of the 13 web sites on the list, the World Socialist Web Site has been the most heavily affected. Its traffic from Google searches has fallen by two thirds.
The new statistics demonstrate that the WSWS is a central target of Google’s censorship campaign. In the twelve months preceding the implementation of the new Google protocols, the WSWS had experienced a substantial increase in readership. A significant component of this increase was the product of Google search results. The rapid rise in search traffic reflected the well-documented growth in popular interest in socialist politics during 2016. The rate of growth accelerated following the November election, which led to large protests against the election of Trump.
Search traffic to the WSWS peaked in April 2017, precisely at the point when Google began the implementation of its censorship protocols.
Another site affected by Google’s action has provided information that confirms the findings of the WSWS.
“In late May, changes to Google’s algorithm negatively impacted the volume of traffic to the Common Dreams website from organic Google searches,” said Aaron Kaufman, director of development at progressive news outlet Common Dreams. “Since May, traffic from Google Search as a percentage of total traffic to the Common Dreams website has decreased nearly 50 percent.”
The extent and impact of Google’s actions prove that a combination of techniques is being employed to block access to targeted sites. These involve the direct flagging and blackballing of the WSWS and the other 12 sites listed above by Google evaluators. These sites are assigned a highly negative rating that assures that their articles will be either demoted or entirely bypassed. In addition, new programming technology teaches the computers to think like the evaluators, that is, to emulate their preferences and prejudices.
Finally, the precision of this operation strongly suggests that there is an additional range of exclusion techniques involving the selection of terms, words, phrases and topics that are associated with socialist and left-wing websites.
This would explain why the World Socialist Web Site, which focuses on issues such as war, geopolitics, social inequality and working class struggles has experienced such a dramatic fall in Google-generated searches on these very topics. We have seen that the very terms and phrases that would under normal circumstances be most likely to generate the highest level of hits—such as “socialism,” “Marxism” and “Trotskyism”—produce the lowest results.
This is an ongoing process in which one can expect that Google evaluators are continuously adding suspect terms to make their algorithm ever more precise, with the eventual goal of eliminating traffic to the WSWS and other targeted sites.
The information that has been gathered and published by the WSWS during the past week exposes that Google is at the center of a corporate-state conspiracy to drastically curtail democratic rights. The attack on free speech and uncensored access to information is aimed at crippling popular opposition to social inequality, war and authoritarianism.
The central and sinister role of Google in this process demonstrates that freedom of speech and thought is incompatible with corporate control of the Internet.
As we continue our exposure of Google’s assault on democratic rights, we demand that it immediately and unequivocally halt and revoke its censorship program.
It is critical that a coordinated campaign be organized within the United States and internationally against Google’s censorship of the Internet. We intend to do everything in our power to develop and contribute to a counter-offensive against its efforts to suppress freedom of speech and thought.
The fight against corporate-state censorship of the Internet is central to the defense of democratic rights, and there must be a broad-based collaboration among socialist, left and progressive websites to alert the public and the widest sections of the working class.
* * *
Between April and June, Google completed a major revision of its search engine that sharply curtails public access to Internet web sites that operate independently of the corporate and state-controlled media. Since the implementation of the changes, many left wing, anti-war and progressive web sites have experienced a sharp fall in traffic generated by Google searches. The World Socialist Web Site has seen, within just one month, a 70 percent drop in traffic from Google.
In a blog post published on April 25, Ben Gomes, Google’s chief search engineer, rolled out the new censorship program in a statement bearing the Orwellian title, “Our latest quality improvements for search.” This statement has been virtually buried by the corporate media. Neither the New York Times nor the Wall Street Journal has reported the statement. The Washington Post limited its coverage of the statement to a single blog post.
Framed as a mere change to technical procedures, Gomes’s statement legitimizes Internet censorship as a necessary response to “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.”
The “phenomenon of ‘fake news’” is, itself, the principal “fake news” story of 2017. In its origins and propagation, it has all the well-known characteristics of what used to be called CIA “misinformation” campaigns, aimed at discrediting left-wing opponents of state and corporate interests.
Significantly, Gomes does not provide any clear definition, let alone concrete examples, of any of these loaded terms (“fake news,” “blatantly misleading,” “low quality, “offensive,” and “down right false information.”)
The focus of Google’s new censorship algorithm is political news and opinion sites that challenge official government and corporate narratives. Gomes writes: “[I]t’s become very apparent that a small set of queries in our daily traffic (around 0.25 percent), have been returning offensive or clearly misleading content, which is not what people are looking for.”
Gomes revealed that Google has recruited some 10,000 “evaluators” to judge the “quality” of various web domains. The company has “evaluators—real people who assess the quality of Google’s search results—give us feedback on our experiments.” The chief search engineer does not identify these “evaluators” nor explain the criteria that are used in their selection. However, using the latest developments in programming, Google can teach its search engines to “think” like the evaluators, i.e., translate their political preferences, prejudices, and dislikes into state and corporate sanctioned results.
Gomes asserts that these “evaluators” are to abide by the company’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines, which “provide more detailed examples of low-quality webpages for raters to appropriately flag, which can include misleading information, unexpected offensive results, hoaxes and unsupported conspiracy theories.”
Once again, Gomes employs inflammatory rhetoric without explaining the objective basis upon which negative evaluations of web sites are based.
Using the input of these “evaluators,” Gomes declares that Google has “improved our evaluation methods and made algorithmic updates to surface more authoritative content.” He again asserts, further down, “We’ve adjusted our signals to help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content.”
What this means, concretely, is that Google decides not only what political views it wants censored, but also what sites are to be favored.
Gomes is clearly in love with the term “authoritative,” and a study of the word’s meaning explains the nature of his verbal infatuation. A definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary for the word “authoritative” is: “Proceeding from an official source and requiring compliance or obedience.”
The April 25 statement indicates that the censorship protocols will become increasingly restrictive. Gomes states that Google is “making good progress” in making its search results more restrictive. “But in order to have long-term and impactful changes, more structural changes in Search are needed.”
One can assume that Mr. Gomes is a competent programmer and software engineer. But one has good reason to doubt that he has any particular knowledge of, let alone concern for, freedom of speech.
Gomes’s statement is Google-speak for saying that the company does not want people to access anything besides the official narrative, worked out by the government, intelligence agencies, the main capitalist political parties, and transmitted to the population by the corporate-controlled media.
In the course of becoming a massive multi-billion dollar corporate juggernaut, Google has developed politically insidious and dangerous ties to powerful and repressive state agencies. It maintains this relationship not only with the American state, but also with governments overseas. Just a few weeks before implementing its new algorithm, in early April, Gomes met with high-ranking German officials in Berlin to discuss the new censorship protocols.
Google the search engine is now a major force for the imposition of state censorship.