Argument

The Autocrat’s Algorithm

The Autocrat’s Algorithm

On Nov. 18, I used the enormously popular news aggregator Google News to search for information about the Russian alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout, recently extradited from Thailand to the United States. The top story was a dispatch from the state-controlled newswire RIA-Novosti, which essentially transcribed a statement from the Russian foreign minister demanding that Bout receive a fair trial. The other top results were a mixed bag, including Western sources like CBS News and Agence France-Presse as well as other Russian state-funded sources like ITAR-TASS and the television network Russia Today. (Typical U.S. headline: "Alleged ‘Merchant of Death’ Pleads Not Guilty." Typical Russian headline: "Bout was psychologically pressured during flight to U.S.")

Two weeks earlier, a search for "Myanmar Election" would have returned dispatches from U.S. sources like UPI and the Los Angeles Times, describing Burma’s just-concluded poll as a highly rigged sham, but also an opinion piece from the Global Times, an internationally focused publication produced by China’s People’s Daily titled "Myanmar’s Election a Step Forward."

Of course, offering news from different international perspectives is the whole point of Google News. The service was developed by Google’s Krishna Bharat shortly after the 9/11 attacks with the goal, as he later put it, of "helping people understand multiple points of view, and hence becoming wiser for it — whether they agree with it or not." But those points of view are often coming from state-sponsored news sources in countries, like Russia and China, where independent journalists are either harassed and persecuted or outright banned. Could Google News’s level playing field be enabling authoritarian regimes to more easily get out their message?

"The web gives us the possibility to reach an audience who cannot watch us on TV, and who are more used to getting news online," Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of television network Russia Today, told me in an email. RT, as it’s more commonly known, was founded five years ago, partly by RIA-Novosti, and is widely seen as an effort to improve Russia’s image around the world, though it denies having a pro-Kremlin bias.

Nonetheless, others detect a strong pro-Russian slant in the network’s coverage of international events. During the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, RT accused the Georgian forces of "genocide," but reportedly instructed its reporters not to report from ethnically Georgian villages that had been attacked by Russian troops. The network has also been criticized for giving airtime to fringe anti-American political figures and 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Some mainstream Washington analysts — including this author, once — do appear on the network’s broadcasts, but sometimes find it difficult to get their views across.

"It’s a little hard to go back on a TV show that has ‘mechanical difficulties’ every time you’re supposed to speak," says Council on Foreign Relations Russia analyst Stephen Sestanovich.  

Judging by the results for Russia-related queries, however, RT’s website seems to be succeeding in spite of its editorial slant.

Google doesn’t disclose the complex algorithm by which it ranks search results, though that doesn’t stop news outlets (including this one) from trying to figure it out. "Search engine optimization," or SEO, has become an obsession for media outlets looking to gain an edge on the competition in the new journalism landscape created by Google.

In an extreme example of this trend, some new online news outlets such as Associated Content and Demand Media generate content purely based on Google search queries rather than any sort of journalistic value, and newspapers are beginning to experiment with the formula.

Simonyan wouldn’t speak on how her network seems to perform so well on Google News, saying, "Only Google can explain how it works."

According to Google spokesman Chris Gaither, some criteria include the "freshness" and "localness" of the story. The site also judges the reliability of different sources by a number of criteria, including the number of repeat visits from users.

One reason state-sponsored media often rank so high in response to specific queries might be that they’re often the main source of original information from the countries they cover. Informal studies have observed that Google tends to prioritize original reporting over re-reported content. With either shrinking news budgets or government restrictions preventing Western news agencies from covering events in countries like Iran and Russia, that gives state-sponsored outlets a clear edge. A search for the latest news on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is likely to turn up so many stories from loyal state-sponsored outlets like PressTV and Fars News because they spend a lot more time covering him and have much better access.

But some analysts wonder about the unintended consequences of this preference. "If no one’s covering the story but a news wire, a bunch of sources copying the newswire, and a state broadcaster who’s basically there to refute the news wire, is Google News doing the right thing for us by prioritizing that state broadcaster?" asks Ethan Zuckerman, senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and co-founder of the international blog aggregator Global Voices.

For example, are RT and RIA-Novosti really trustworthy sources on the brutal beating of reporter Oleg Kashin, who was nearly killed last month, likely for engaging in just the sort of journalism that these sources fail to provide? Their stories mention the frequent attacks on journalists in Russia, but fail to note, as the New York Times and AP did, that these recent crimes have nearly all gone unsolved by the authorities.

Or consider the Fars News’s coverage of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s recent visit to the holy city of Qom, which takes note of the "astonishingly warm welcome" he received in the city, proving "the nation’s strong relationship and support for the Islamic establishment." In the foreign press, the visit was widely seen as an effort by the supreme leader to shore up support among Iran’s increasingly critical clerical elite.

It’s probably not possible, or desirable, to ask Google News to get in the business of blocking or otherwise filtering news from objectionable sources. Propaganda is often in the eye of the beholder. While few American readers object to getting their news from the BBC, partially funded by the British Foreign Office, many find the Qatari-funded satellite network Al Jazeera hopelessly biased. Should it be blocked along with the Chinese wire service Xinhua? What about stories from the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe?

Policing content this way would directly contradict the search engine’s guiding philosophy, which Zuckerman says has traditionally been about making the "algorithmic choice, rather than the human choice." On the other hand, Google already labels some stories as blog posts, press releases, or paid content, rather than reported articles, but Gaither explained the company’s reluctance to expand labeling further.

"One thing we have not done is to label anything according to any perceived political bias," he says. "We feel that’s a slippery slope that we don’t really want to go down."

But perhaps the site could provide more information to let readers make those judgment calls on their own. "I would appreciate it if Google made it easier to check on the source and find out what we know about them, see their other coverage and maybe a profile of them. That strikes me as something that would be a reasonable way to handle it," Zuckerman says.

Google News is just one example of how the Internet is slowly shifting the balance of power for information. During the Cold War, the United States and Britain pumped Voice of America and the BBC World Service into communist countries, providing an alternative to state media, while copies of Pravda were pretty hard to come by in the West. Today, outlets like RT and Iran’s PressTV are reversing the trend, providing an alternative narrative to global events.

"RT offers [U.S. readers] stories and opinions that urge them to question more," Simonyan says. "That’s why we receive a huge amount of feedback saying: ‘Thank you for reporting this story, we would never find it [in the mainstream media].’"

And just because an outlet is state-sponsored doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a useful source. 

"Russia Profile, which is a RIA-Novosti magazine [is] astonishingly good," says Sestanovich. "I hope the editor doesn’t get in trouble if I say that you can learn a lot about bad things that are going on in Russia from it. The journalists who work for it take professional self-respect seriously and they run high-quality pieces on all kinds of topics." 

But according to Jeffrey Gedmin, president of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE-RL), American readers aren’t always aware of what they’re getting from more loyal state-sponsored outlets.

"They have very high production values and mix in enough real news to make it not appear completely lackey and prejudiced, but mostly it’s very much a Kremlin propaganda effort," he says. "Do people know that what they’re watching is a wholly owned subsidiary of a hostile authoritarian government?"

While a majority of Americans now get at least some of their news online and 62 percent of online news readers say they use the Internet to find out about international events, it’s still far from clear how aware U.S. readers are of the different types of news sources available from aggregators like Google.

Some see the rise of authoritarian state news outlets as a strategic issue. Walter Isaacson, president of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent U.S. agency that oversees RFE/RL and Voice of America, has described the growing influence of RT and its ilk in stark terms, saying, "We can’t allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies."

Simonyan rejects the notion that RT’s broadcasts are part of a propaganda effort. "Government funding does not mean being biased, just as being corporately funded does not automatically mean being independent," she says. "Government funded and corporate funded media have one thing in common — they compete for an audience, and it is up to viewers to decide what to watch, and what not to watch."

Of course, giving users the choice to hear all sides of the conversation is exactly what Google News is supposed to be for and why it’s so popular. But that level of choice often means that users are exposed to sources with varying levels of reliability. 

In Google’s view, readers are expected to take far more responsibility for figuring out who exactly is giving them their news. According to Gaither, that’s exactly the point: "We provide lots of different links so you can see how different sites from different geographies and political perspectives are covering the news of the day so you can make your own judgment on which sources you trust."

In other words: Reader beware.