Eric Schmidt and the Kremlin. Image: Nils Jorgensen/REX/Shutterstock/Pavel Kazachkov/Wikimedia Commons. Composition: Rachel Pick
Eric Schmidt, Executive Chariman of Alphabet, says the company is working to ferret out Russian propaganda from Google News after facing criticism that Kremlin-owned media sites had been given plum placement on the search giant’s news and advertising platforms.“We’re well aware of this one, and we’re working on detecting this kind of scenario you’re describing and deranking those kinds of sites,” Schmidt said, after being asked why the world’s largest search company continued to classify the Russian sites as news.
Schmidt, in an interview at the Halifax International Security Forum over the weekend, name-checked two state-owned enterprises.“It’s basically RT and Sputnik,” Schmidt added. “We’re well aware and we’re trying to engineer the systems to prevent it.”Both outlets are wholly owned by the Russian government. RT is the overseas television station and online outlet, while Sputnik, the online-only media network, is available in over 30 languages.But while Schmidt was willing to take aim at those outlets, and call them out for the “spread of misinformation—or worse,” he provided little in the way of concrete plans to lessen the state broadcasters’ reach on his digital properties.
The two Russian outlets have been at the centre of questions over Moscow’s efforts to influence politics in the West, and they have shown an adept understanding of how to expand their reach by using the internet, most notably through Google News and Alphabet-owned YouTube.In January, a publicly released American intelligence assessment concluded that RT and Sputnik “contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.” Earlier this month, RT registered with the US Department of Justice as a “foreign agent.”Even still, both networks have aggressively contended that they are legitimate news organizations, and have benefitted from being recognized as a legitimate outlet under Google News. They have been displayed prominently in news alerts—including emails and push notifications. The outlets have also enjoyed being monetized under Google AdSense, which manages ad placement for its clients and offers them a share of the revenue.
“We don’t want to ban the sites. That’s not how we operate"
Schmidt said the Russian strategy is fairly transparent, and usually involves “amplification around a message." That information can be “repetitive, exploitative, false, [or] likely to have been weaponized,” he said.“My own view is that these patterns can be detected, and that they can be taken down or deprioritized.”On Saturday, however, Schmidt ruled out kicking the sites off his platform altogether.“We don’t want to ban the sites. That’s not how we operate,” Schmidt said. “I am strongly not in favour of censorship. I am very strongly in favour of ranking. It’s what we do.“It’s a very legitimate question as to how we rank, A or B, right? And we do the best we can in millions and millions of rankings every day.”
Facebook and Twitter have already started work to try and mitigate the potential threat posed by such news outlets. Facebook has opened the door to reporting and disclosing the origins of the political advertising on its platform. Twitter, this month, banned RT and Sputnik from advertising on their site. The social media platform said it has been paid nearly $2 million from RT alone since 2011.“This decision is restricted to these two entities based our internal investigation of their behavior,” Twitter wrote.Nevertheless, the world’s largest digital and social media companies received a dressing-down at a congressional hearing this month for not doing enough to stem the flow of Russian disinformation.In Halifax, Schmidt did tout recent efforts at YouTube to take down videos of a notorious recruiter for the Islamic State. His talk was attended by some of the highest-ranking defence and security officials from NATO and its allies, including officials from various Eastern European governments who have been hammered by a flow of fake news and misinformation.For RT, YouTube has been instrumental in expanding its reach. It has been injured by YouTube’s decision to yank RT from its premium platform, which served RT videos to advertisers. It, however, continues to use YouTube to deliver its content to over 2.2 million subscribers.Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .