Forget fake news. Google has ushered in the age of fake searches.
Earlier this month, Marxist online publication The World Socialist Website published a startling statistic followed by a chilling accusation: Over the summer, traffic from Google searches to The World Socialist Web Site dropped off a cliff. A cliff of nearly 75 percent, to be exact. The site reported that its articles had mysteriously stopped appearing in Google searches as they had for years, even when that search was targeted.
The only possible explanation, argues the site, is a new search algorithm that Google has deployed against so-called “fake news.” It ranks news outlets according to “credibility,” rewarding “quality” and punishing “conspiracy.”
Whatever might be said about wsws.org—that the writing and design is a bit stolid, that maybe every article shouldn’t end on a note of Trotskyist cant—the site is most definitely not “fake news” or a peddler of conspiracies. It is a deeply informed and rigorously reported font of Marxist analysis of world events. But in the eyes of Google, Karl Marx and Das Kapital are on par with Alex Jones and breathless articles about Pizzagate. The stakes of this are every bit as high as those in the fight over net neutrality.
It’s not just wsws.org that has seen its traffic dive. A number of left-wing sites with hard-earned journalistic credibility also appear to be affected by the new algorithm: AlterNet.org, TruthOut.org and others, including mainstream (and hardly radical) human rights organizations like Amnesty International.
Alternative publishers have, for two decades, used the internet as a kind of digital expansion of the old pamphlet table and, later, the ‘zine rack. Like those two venerable traditions, the internet was a place where alternative publishers could punch above their weight by putting in the effort to reach people. In the pre-internet days, if you went through the trouble of printing up a booklet about, say, Reagan’s counterinsurgency wars in Central America, and distributed those pamphlets in a legal place like, say, outside the DMV, you could bypass the mainstream media and have an impact. It was the First Amendment at work.
For a long time, the internet expanded on this same promise: Put in the time to make a website and produce good content, and you will develop an audience, which will only increase your weight in search results. The monopoly power of Google means one company now has the power to change this — to force the pamphleteer to set up his table behind the DMV instead of in front of it.
As someone who was politicized while waiting for my mother to renew her driver’s license at a Boston DMV, I am horrified by the early results of Google’s “fake news” dragnet. It’s a horror that should be shared by every member of this podcast community and anybody else with a digital pamphlet stall, not to mention a belief in the Constitution and a sense of fair play.