Google is “de-ranking” the search results for Russian government-funded news sites Sputnik and RT in an effort to tamp down Russian propaganda in the U.S.
The move came in April as part of Google’s targeting of “offensive” content and fake news. At a security conference in Halifax, Canadam over the weekend, however, Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, revealed his company had specifically started targeted RT and Sputnik. Schmidt said that while he’s “strongly not in favor of censorship, I am very strongly in favor of ranking. It’s what we do.”
Google’s initial maneuver in April reflected an acquiescence to pressure from Washington, where lawmakers and intelligence officials have castigated Silicon Valley for allowing the Russian government to use digital platforms to influence U.S. politics.
And Silicon Valley, in turn, has already instituted some policy changes designed to minimize Russian state media’s English-language presence, without eliminating them entirely. In early October, Google booted RT from a premium YouTube advertiser program, and three weeks later Twitter banned both Sputnik and RT from placing ads on its platform.
“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,” Sputnik and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan said.
In addition to pushing Silicon Valley to target RT and Sputnik, the U.S. government recently forced RT to officially register as a foreign agent, meaning that RT operates on behalf of Russia, not as an independent media organization. The Russian government, in response, has attempted to penalize the Russia-based operations of U.S. news outlets including CNN.
But while targeting RT and Sputnik might not yield much blowback in domestic political circles, non-Russian-funded radical political voices have said that Google has significantly de-ranked them in what amounts to a “deliberate intervention” and an assault on free speech. The World Socialist Web Site, a leftist news service, reported in August that its Google traffic had fallen 67 percent after the April Google policy change.
A spokesperson for Google said the company doesn’t alter its algorithms to affect the ranking of individual sites and that Schmidt’s comments were referring to its April policy announcement.