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How Google Searches Are Promoting Armenian Genocide Denial

If you Google "Armenia genocide," the top result takes you to propaganda that denies it ever happened.

by Brian Merchant
Apr 28 2015, 9:20pm

Google Turkey screenshot, translated from the Turkish into English.

If you use Google Turkey to search for "Ermeni Kırımı", which means "Armenian genocide" in Turkish, the first thing you'll see is a sponsored link to a website whose purpose is to deny there was any genocide at all. If you Google "Armenia genocide" in the US, you'll see the same thing.

FactCheckArmenia.com may reflect Turkey's longstanding position that the Ottoman Empire's systematic effort to "relocate" and exterminate its Armenian population does not qualify as a genocide, but it certainly does not reflect the facts. The sponsored link to a credible-looking website risks confusing searchers about the true nature of the well-documented event. Worse, it may help deter a nascent willingness among Turkish citizens to recognize and discuss the horrors of its past.

There are 35 million internet users in Turkey, and 96 percent of them use Google as their primary search engine. That translates to a lot of users primed to happen across FactCheckArmenia.org, which appears to have been purchased in anticipation of the genocide's 100th anniversary—a time when more people are likely to be interested in learning about and searching for information about the genocide.

According to whois records, the site was registered in February, 2015. The registrars have blocked their identities and location on the records—it is routed to a shell company in the Bahamas—and have gone to lengths to ensure its origins are untraceable. And on April 24th, the date typically observed as the beginning of the genocide in 1915, FactCheckArmenia.com sat atop the search results for "Ermeni Kırımı" and "Armenia genocide."

The sponsored ad may be in violation of Google's ad policy, which states that "we don't allow the promotion of products or services that are designed to enable dishonest behavior." Denying a genocide seems to me to count as "dishonest behavior." According to Google, "products or services that help users to mislead others" are forbidden. Google declined multiple requests for comment on this story.

In Turkey, outright genocide denial still runs rampant. A recent New York Times headline proclaimed that "A Century After Armenian Genocide, Turkey's Denial Only Deepens." Experts speculate that Turkey's government fears that if it were to recognize the genocide, it would not only stain its reputation, but that it may be forced to pay reparations to Armenians, or cede more territory to neighboring Armenia.

As a result, Turkey spends vast sums of money lobbying the United States Congress against recognizing the genocide—an effort that pays off, at least, in discouraging the US from doing so. President Obama himself is cowed from publicly stating what he says are his personal beliefs on the matter (that yes, it was, as the UN, the Vatican, and an ever-growing number of nations recognize, a genocide).

Screenshot, FactCheckArmenia.com

Turkey, for its part, argues that the killings weren't really a genocide, but rather an unfortunate byproduct of war—there was never any effort targeting Armenians, they say. Turkey also claims that lots of Turks and Kurds died, too, and it was a "tragedy" not a "genocide." Its revisionist history says that Armenians led an uprising, and joined with the Russians, and thus, the "war" between the ethnic groups was justified. While it is true that some Armenians protested unfair taxation, and some did defect to Russia during the war, they were vastly outnumbered by the millions of peaceful residents of the Ottoman Empire who were forced into labor, deportation, and concentration camps. Scholars agree on this overwhelmingly.

As a result, the Armenian genocide remains criminally unremembered by the international community, and by the United States in particular. Turkey's stark denial of the event—until recently, it was illegal to even discuss the genocide in public, lest a citizen be charged with perpetrating "an insult to Turkishness"—paired with the nation's geopolitical importance to NATO and the US—Turkey was an ally against Russia, and now against ISIS—has resulted in a century of silence.

Today, the continued rise of internet access promises to finally deliver good, factual information compiled by scholars, historians, and genocide researchers over the years—evidence that clearly casts the event as a genocide under the UN definition—to searchers worldwide. I personally found Google an instrumental tool in researching the event here in the US, where its results were clear-eyed, honest, and factual—apart from this toxic link.

For the vast majority of users, the web is only as good as their search engine. And while internet adoption is growing fairly briskly in Turkey, many are likely to access a considerable amount of misinformation if they Google the genocide there.

FactCheckArmenia dispenses a view that is suspiciously similar to the Turkish government's line—and sometimes, perhaps more extreme. The website, which contains broadly displayed links to sections with titles like "Armenian Terrorism" and casts the effort to recognize the genocide as the work of "the Armenian lobby," makes pronouncements like "Despite the propaganda being pushed by a powerful and well-funded Armenian diaspora, the series of events in 1915 and beyond resulted in losses of life on both sides of the conflict."

As a result, it claims, "there is no legal consensus to support the Armenians' attempts to portray these actions as a willful, deliberate attempt to commit genocide of the Armenian people." Scholars, and a growing number of countries and organizations, roundly disagree.

In Turkey, it's not just FactCheckArmenia. There are a number of other, unpaid links on the front page of the results that doubt or deny outright the genocide. Even the Turkish Wikipedia entry for "Armenian Genocide" casts a tone of uncertainty, and describes the events of 1915 as though the matter were up for debate. There is a link to Armenia's very informative online genocide museum on the front page of the Google Turkey search results, but also, just a couple links below, to an op-ed proclaiming "There is no Armenian genocide." (I asked Google how it indexes its search results for that query, too, but Google declined to comment.)

The web can be a force for accurate remembrance and discovery of this historical tragedy. And it could prove especially useful in Turkey, where some scholars, media, and citizens are slowly beginning to recognize the atrocity its state has denied for decades, and inroads are even being made towards atonement.

But so as long as the world's most powerful search engine promotes sponsored content that denies the genocide, and prominently features links to pages full of falsehoods, the web will, of course just as easily serve to propagate confusion and misinformation. That, sadly, appears to be what's happening in Turkey today.