Google supports partisan media, fails to sanction disinformation – analysis

Differing drastically from its operations in the United States or Europe, Google continuously prioritises government-backed outlets and fails to act against sources of disinformation in Turkey, International Press Institute (IPI) Turkey Committee Vice Chairman Emre Kızılkaya wrote on Thursday in a detailed analysis on Thursday.

Kızılkaya’s research has shown that search results on Google appear to prop up newspapers like Yeni Şafak, which frequently runs crudely anti-Semitic opinion pieces and news stories.

Kızılkaya referred to an article by Yeni Şafak columnist Yusuf Kaplan, which spoke of the “evil mind” of the “global Jewish power”.

Kaplan’s article “was given a much bigger platform to reach millions of people via Google,” Kızılkaya said.

Google’s policy is to remove content that violates its policies against promotion of violence or harassment “based on ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, sexual orientation, or gender identity”, and to remove websites from news surfaces upon “repeated or egregious violations.”

However, websites fitting most of the non-discrimination characteristics listed have not only appear, but also dominate Google’s news surfaces, Kızılkaya said.

The tech giant’s algorithm was also not affected by complaints over disinformation, hate speech, copyright infringements or attempts to game the Google algorithm, he said as he moved to provide examples.

“Fairly balanced” under its previous ownership, one of Turkey’s best-selling newspapers Hürriyet has turned into “little more than a propaganda outlet” for the Turkish government, Kızılkaya said, after its acquisition by pro-government Demirören Media Group.

Under the new administration, Hürriyet targeted leaders of two of Turkey’s biggest opposition parties, the centre-left secular Republican People’s Party and the left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, he said.

Meanwhile, sister network CNNTurk has long been criticised of providing a one-sided, pro-government argument in its debate shows.

“This partisan editorial policy paved the way to the main opposition party’s recent decision to boycott the TV channel,” Kızılkaya said.

“Digital media is now the primary domain for Turkey’s consumers to receive higher-quality news and critical commentary,” Kızılkaya said, as the Turkish government has “brought an estimated 95 percent of the country’s media under its influence”, through the forced closure of over 170 media outlets and various methods of pressure.

A vast majority of readers find their way onto digital platforms through Google, he added, making the tech giant’s preferences on the order of results critical.

Racist content and attempts to trick Google’s SEO have led to bans from search results and ad services in the English-speaking world, but not in Turkey, he said.

By awarding only Hürriyet with a grant from the GNI Innovation Fund intended to support smaller journalism outlets, Google has “actively extended financial aid to a government mouthpiece in Turkey”, and paved the way for “a handful of partisan outlets to dominate the Turkish search results and Google News app”, the media expert said.

Pointing to Google enabling misinformation and propaganda, Kızılkaya gave examples of a fake story by A Haber, owned by the pro-government Turkuvaz Medya, about a Turkish company developing a machine to destroy the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Such fake stories “rank high on several important keywords on Google Search, while prominently displaying the Google News widget”, he said.

A story published in 2017 in Turkuvaz Medya’s Sabah newspaper “tried to criminalise critical journalists and press freedom advocates,” Banu Güven and Erol Önderoğlu, “still ranks high on Google search results, while Google ads of brands like Huawei are served on the page”, he added.

Sabah has also accused critical news presenter Fatih Portakal of being a terrorist for not agreeing with the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Google’s current policy endangers journalism and journalists in Turkey,” Mustafa Kuleli, an executive board member of the European Federation of Journalists, told Kızılkaya. “Its failure to sanction the proponents of hate speech, disinformation and propaganda may lead to tragic consequences.”

The amount of money pro-government outlets like Sabah make off of Google is unknown, “but it can be safely argued that it is millions of Turkish Liras annually, considering the huge digital traffic of these websites”, Kızılkaya said.

There are more than 400,000 websites that are banned in Turkey, and the Turkish government is currently contemplating a law to ban all social media, or completely end anonymity online at the very least.