Google made headlines recently when they announced an adjustment to their search algorithm to reduce the spread of “Fake News”. Apparently, The Not Fake News has made their list. I’m annoyed, but on the other hand — that’s life in a nation of free speech, free expression, and a free press.
Some of you may have missed the announcement thanks to the constant Trumproar, so I’ve found the original post from Google — and, for those who want their news interpreted (and who doesn’t?) I’ve also linked to an article on the subject at Fortune Magazine. I’ll touch on a few highlights.
Ever since the earliest webcrawler search bots, folks have been trying to game the system in order to garner more hits on their sites. People learn the tricks and build fake content, and then the search engines update to filter out the spam sites. It’s a continually changing, continually escalating effort, and it keeps the search developers busy. It also, incidentally, creates a huge market for folks who want to boost their hits using artificial means, but that’s another story.
In addition to the multiple fraudsters begging to sell you fake hits by the thousand-lot, it also creates an income stream for both the search site and the content host. For instance, I could pay a fee to WordPress so they boost my post, just like I could pay Google or Facebook. And, if I don’t, Facebook for one has admitted they’ll actively work to suppress anything I write and boost on my own. Google promised not to do that sort of thing, but I’m not sure I trust that anymore. It’s not free press; it’s pay-to-play press.
On the other hand, this is a perfect example of free enterprise on the Web. We use the search engines we like, and in exchange we get the content they choose to give us — and, if they jigger the results so paid content gets preference, who are we to quibble? They do own the sites, after all, and they can manage them however they wish. Amazon taking kickbacks to upvote an item is no weirder than Facebook doing it; heck, it’s arguable that CNN, WaPo, and the Daily News (if not the Times) have been doing that very thing for years. (One wonders if that might be behind their 93% anti-Trump message of late — Harvard study — but I digress.)
That’s how I felt about it until just recently, when I got a notification in parallel with a sudden drop in website hits.
See, a ton of the traffic here at The Not Fake News is people who are gaining access to a few of my old articles. In particular, I did one on the causes of autism (with particular reference to vaccines) that’s a big hit; another, which explores the pros and cons of accepting Syrian refugees, is read at least a couple of dozen times per day by people all around the globe. (Or across it; I don’t discriminate against Flat-Earthers.)
Friday, if you remember, I did a pros-and-cons article on NAFTA, because I figure Why not? It’s going to be news soon enough; I’ll get ahead of the game. Except I made a YUUUGE mistake: I put a big bright red picture of Donald J. Trump on the top. Apparently, that picture was flagged as “Fake News”, and any article that features it is automatically downgraded. What’s more, since it’s the top picture on TNFN, the entire website has been dropped from most Google search results. Suddenly, I dropped from fifty organic hits per day to… three. Turns out, you can’t find any of these articles on Google any longer, not without really working hard at it.
But why? Why would anyone pick on that particular image?
Turns out they don’t. They look for anything with Trump’s picture on it and automatically downgrade it. According to Google company execs, that’s probably just a side effect of his unpopularity: with the new updated controls, people can now click on something and call it “Inappropriate”. A lot of people are now marking every mention of Trump as “Inappropriate”. We’re told that there’s half a dozen other things that are taking similar slides in the credibility ratings, and it’s nothing to be concerned about. Once his popularity improves, it’ll level back out, or so they say.
But therein lies, I think, the difficulty with this whole thing. I mentioned (above) a Harvard study on the statistical prevalence of negative references to Trump in the media — 93%. The problem with that sort of bias is apparent; it’s self-reinforcing. Whether or not Trump is being an ass at the moment, the press doesn’t like him and will inevitably cast him as one. So even those moments in which he does something brilliantly will be written as yet another unforgivable blunder. All bias in media feeds on itself and drives itself further — and search results drive our media consumption, which makes them even more important.
And that’s the danger: We’ve reached a place where a few very fervent people can drive the national public perception of any issue.
Now, the Google thing probably is transient, just like they say. They’ll figure it out and fix it, and until then I can live with fewer hits per day. It’s not like I get paid to write this, after all.
But the phenomenon doesn’t end with search engines. Bias has always driven what news gets reported and what the announcer sneers at and which gets the front page and which gets buried. But now, those things are being decided because of personal opinions on political issues. The result is that the voting public will make decisions on economic issues based on how unpopular a particular individual who appears to embrace that viewpoint happens to be.
This is the opposite of an informed electorate. It is in point of fact in precise opposition to the intent underlying the mandate for broadcast news.
And it’s why I’m here in the first place: I’m sick and tired of people lying to us, people we trust to tell us the truth, people who ought to be above reproach. It’s usually CNN or Fox or the Times; today it happens to be Google, the “Don’t Be Evil” people.
No matter who it is, I’ll continue to gripe about it. Because you feel the same way about it as I do, you’ll come here and read what I write. And, hopefully, when you disagree with me, you’ll tell me precisely that, and we can discuss it.
P.S. Did you like the new word I just coined? “Trumproar”, in case you missed it. I couldn’t find it on an internet search, and that makes it mine. Unless, of course, Google has somehow downgraded it as a fake or inflammatory term… but they wouldn’t do that, would they? You should search for it, just in case — and see if you can find this article. Never know; it may drive some more hits here. :o)