A former Atlantic Council scholar and ex-envoy Michael McFaul – neither being big fans of Russia – are worried that Google is showing them RT stories on the Russia-Ukraine scuffle in the Kerch Strait, above the mainstream names.
Alina Polyakova, formerly a research director at the Atlantic Council, a NATO-sponsored think tank pushing an anti-Russian agenda, has some tough questions for Google, after finding Russian and Ukrainian media headlines, about the recent standoff between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait, a bit too high in her search results for her liking.
Sputnik is the top story on google when searching for Kerch Strait (followed by UNIAN and RT). Where’s Reuters, AP, NYT, etc? Why is this still consistently happening? Google is allowing its algorithm to be manipulated. We need algorithmic transparency. Now. pic.twitter.com/YmblijUHSd
— Dr Alina Polyakova (@apolyakova) November 29, 2018
How does Google even allow this to happen, Polyakova wonders on Twitter? There can be only one answer: it’s the wily Russian propagandists, manipulating search algorithms to worm their way into the enemy’s search returns and eat away at their Putin-hating resolve. (By the way, the Ukrainian UNIAN is also there, daring to get ahead of US media on a Ukrainian story!)
Similarly worried is Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, self-proclaimed victimized “personal foe” of Putin, and peddler of his own book on Russia’s evil ways. It seems all the stories we’ve run on McFaul’s numerous gaffes are finally paying off!
For every individual on Google, this search yields different results (I don’t get UNIAN in my search). But even “in cognito” search produces Sputnik, RT, Sputnik! Not good. https://t.co/KcnFwzDDtB
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) November 30, 2018
Even YouTube has betrayed the former envoy, allowing videos by RT (one of the most viewed news channels) to creep up and appear “frequently” in his search results – not at the top spot, though (no New Year bonus for you, Ivan!).
While both Polyakova and McFaul’s tweets found their target audience, there were voices of reason, as well. Citing some common knowledge on Google’s search algorithms, – the fact that they adjust for the user’s browsing history, – they pointed out that both the ex-ambassador and the Brookings fellow seem to like RT more than they are willing to admit. One might actually think that reading a bit of RT is a logical thing for an Atlantic Council researcher to do – to know her enemy if nothing else.
But Polyakova sternly denies she ever goes there, and even says she purged her browser for total de-propagandization.
No. I never go to these sites. I’ve turned off all the possible trackers/cookies on my google account. Cleaner then regularly. The search gives different results based on location – I’m in Europe right now. Don’t get this in the US.
— Dr Alina Polyakova (@apolyakova) November 29, 2018
She has even called, in a now-deleted tweet, for RT to be deranked in search results based on its “foreign agent” status in the US, despite saying in the tweet above that the screenshot was taken in Europe, where the DOJ has no sway, and reports (including her own) that RT wasn’t at the top for those Googling in the US.
McFaul even tried the incognito browser mode in an attempt to escape the tentacles of Russian propaganda – all in vain.
In truth, it doesn’t take an IT expert or a Google insider to grasp the basics of why this is happening, even to those innocent souls who never touch RT or Sputnik with a ten-foot digital pole. While the entire mechanism remains a mystery to the public, the general information on Google’s algorithms is out there in the open – not that anyone expects McFaul to check his sources.
Google analyzes “hundreds of different factors” to (arguably) better serve your searching needs, and your personal browsing history is just one of them. Also key is the source’s relevance to the matter at hand. Even those who brand RT “Kremlin propaganda” can’t deny it’s among the first sources to carry statements by Russian officials in English – of which there were plenty as the Kerch stand-off developed, as well as those by Ukraine.
Not to mention that RT was covering all the latest developments and posting early images from the scene.
Also important is the number of transitions to the website in question – of which RT has had plenty as it was breaking development after development in the tense hours during and following the altercation in the Azov and Black seas.
At the time of writing, RT stories related on the topic numbered in the dozens, and made a significant chunk of the incoming traffic.
Past that, it’s all SEO (search engine optimization): a contest of who has more strategically-placed keywords. It’s been around almost as long as Google itself, and is practiced by absolutely everyone who wants their pages to show up high in web searches. But of course, the evil Russians shouldn’t be allowed to do that: it’s only “optimization” if done by an Atlantic Council-approved outlet. If it’s RT or Sputnik, it’s “manipulation.”
If anything, Google could be playing against RT. In 2017, its then boss Eric Schmidt said it planned to “engineer” algorithms to sink certain stories, openly admitting it would target “basically RT and Sputnik.”
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