Battle Against 'Fake News' Marginalizes Progressive Media Outlets

Posted Oct. 25, 2017

MP3 Interview with Julianne Tveten, journalist, conducted by Scott Harris

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As congressional committees and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation seeks information and evidence on charges that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had colluded with Russian government operatives to win the White House, independent journalism has emerged as an unlikely victim of the probe.

An explosion of news stories highlighting charges that Russia sponsored an operation to plant “fake news” in U.S. social media to boost Trump during the 2016 election campaign, has prompted online giants Google and Facebook to block access to what they label as “offensive" news websites. Unfortunately, dozens of progressive, left and radical political websites have been blocked in this process, and have since reported dramatic declines in their online traffic, the lifeblood of online news organizations.

This marginalization of left media resulted in large part from major changes made to Google’s search engine algorithm, designed the company says, to combat fake news. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Julianne Tveten, who writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic topics. Here, she discusses important issues examined in her recent article titled, “How the 'Fake News' Scare is Marginalizing the Left," which reveals how unaccountable tech companies are defining the parameters of acceptable discourse.

JULIANNE TVETEN: The kind of premise of what I wrote is that there's this kind of confluence of the "fake news" narrative and of the "Russiagate" narrative. And the idea is that various kinds of mainstream sources – CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc. –  have been really emphasizing the influence of Russia on the election, obviously, and in the process of kind of this narrative of Russia tampering with United States democracy, various technology companies have been placed at the center. So FAcebook, Google, Twitter – which all have tremendous capacity to disseminate information and to disseminate news stories – and so, what's been going on recently is that pundits and mainstream media sources are claiming that Russia has been tampering with Facebook and with Twitter. Russia agents have placed ads on Facebook, and have created accounts on Twitter have manipulated American citizens and the American voting citizenry. So that's kind of the latest development in this narrative.

But what I found was that the idea of "fake news" is very nebulous. Since Google and Facebook have been responding to these critiques of their complicity in disseminating "fake news," left-leaning sites have suffered. Google has updated its algorithms in order to kind of "control" for the spread of "fake news" and in the process, sites like Alternet and the World Socialist website and Democracy Now! and several others have seen their search traffic decline.

And so, that's kind of the latest stirring in the ongoing "fake new-Russia gate" narrative.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Julianne, can you explain a little bit more about the algorithm changes that we've seen at Facebook, and how that has affected – and you can mention some of the statistics of the reduced readership that some of these important progressive sites have experienced as a result of that algorithm change.

JULIANNE TVETEN: That's actually more closely related to Google. In April, Google instituted several algorithmic in response specifically to accusations that it had helped to spread misinformation and "fake news." And as a result of that, various sites saw their search traffic decline. So the World Socialist reported that it had seen a 67 percent in traffic between April and July. So right after the algorithms were changed, a total decrease of 85 percent – sites like Alternet, Democracy Now! Commondreams, Global Research and Truthout also saw pretty significant declines in their search traffic ranging from 49 to 71 percent. And Alternet claimed to have lost an average of 1.2 million of its 2.7 million unique visitors that it received from search traffic.

And of course, Google has a search monopoly and generates the majority of search traffic for most websites. So it's pretty easily attributable a Google searches. So it's quite indicative of the power that Google can have on pretty much any website it wants, let alone with a certain political identity.

BETWEEN THE LINES: These progressive media outlets – small, not very powerful – they are quite alarmed at what's going on here in the real reduction of their readership. What are they doing to push back? Are they capable of putting any counter-pressure here to get back on some kind of even playing field in social media without being hobbled by these counterfeit news operations?

JULIANNE TVETEN: Right. It's difficult for them because they're really not in positions of power, certainly not compared to the monopolistic forces – but provide their search ranking. Or prevent them to users on a large scale. I don't know exactly what the strategy is, but I think this speaks much more to a very, very large-scale problem, which is monopoly capitalism. The fact that there are these private companies that their own political motivations what place such a large role in how visible these sites can be. Perhaps some of these sites can take legal action; I think they're more apt to organize in a more grassroots fashion. Again, I'm not entire sure – I wish I knew more about that. But I do think this should be used as an opportunity to really examine the effects of monopoly capitalism and of giving such a small concentration of companies such immense power when so much is at stake.

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