Google slammed for de-ranking Russian News

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has told journalists at a conference in Canada on Saturday, that Google was engineering algorithms to “detect and de-rank” content from websites disseminating the alleged Russian propaganda, namely RT and Sputnik, in Google News search results.

In early November, Google, alongside Facebook, and Twitter gave testimonies to the US parliamentarians as part of the US authorities’ ongoing investigation into alleged Russia’s meddling with the US 2016 presidential election. The Russian embassy in the United States commented on their testimonies by saying that they had confirmed the lack of proof of the Russian government’s meddling with the US presidential vote.

Unsurprisingly, his words weren’t met with kindness back in Russia. The country’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova expressed her concerns on Thursday, calling the move ‘direct censorship,’ and ‘a violation of the fundamental principles of freedom of speech.’

Who should you side with? According to the US intelligence community, Russia’s news agencies aren’t blameless: a report from January alleges that Russian media was complicit in influencing politics “by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.”

Schmidt added that the plan wasn’t to ban those sites outright, but to tackle easily recognizable strategies used by Russian media to amplify messages, implying that algorithms could be developed to identify and de-rank such content.

“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,” Simonyan said in a statement, as quoted by RT press service, published late on Monday.

At the same time, RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, said in a statement that Google’s own internal review system had found that the news site had broken no rules three weeks ago. Being de-ranked would affect the publication’s ability to reach an international audience and earn revenue through ads.

That’s what makes this a bit difficult to parse: if RT didn’t break Google’s rules, then the company’s plan to deploy algorithms to sniff out propaganda only from Russian media outlets seems like a politically charged move; at the end of October, the company was questioned, along with Facebook and Twitter, by Congress about their failure to curb the spread of messaging that tampered with the 2016 US elections.

The Russian parliamentarians are currently considering a bill on designating as foreign agents media, operating in Russia, which are funded by foreign governments. Moscow says the bill is a mirror response to the West’s restrictions imposed on the Russian media outlets.

Clearly, this is about more than just technology and free speech.

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