Yesterday, NBC News published a piece claiming that Google had “banned” conservative websites the Federalist and ZeroHedge for “pushing unsubstantiated claims about the Black Lives Matter movement.” Google’s ban came amid research conducted by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an organization that “campaigns for internet censorship to be enacted against rival political actors,” which stated that ten US-based websites published racist articles about the protests, which NBC news brought to the attention of Google. The NBC News piece originally claimed that the Federalist had been banned from generating advertising revenue due to an article on its website, which claimed that the media lied about the riots and looting surrounding the George Floyd protests. Google later clarified that ZeroHedge was banned for racist comments on its articles and that the Federalist had been given three days to remove similar offensive comments on one of its articles or be banned. They eventually conceded and removed the comments.
In a follow up, Google tweeted:
The Federalist was never demonetized.
— Google Communications (@Google_Comms) June 16, 2020
Our policies do not allow ads to run against dangerous or derogatory content, which includes comments on sites, and we offer guidance and best practices to publishers on how to comply. https://t.co/zPO669Yd0p
— Google Communications (@Google_Comms) June 16, 2020
In an email to NBC News, Google stated:
We have strict publisher policies that govern the content ads can run on and explicitly prohibit derogatory content that promotes hatred, intolerance, violence or discrimination based on race from monetizing. When a page or site violates our policies, we take action. In this case, we’ve removed both sites’ ability to monetize with Google.
There are a number of very serious problems here. The first is that Google searches act as a sort of quasi-public forum, which congregates a variety of political and social commentary media outlets— ranging from Breitbart and the Root to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times—in one easily accessible location. The opinions on these different sites are often in direct opposition to each other and many would be considered racist or derogatory by their ideological adversaries. By banning sites based on their points of view, which, given the dependence of these sites on Google’s ad revenue effectively amounts to corporate censorship of public speech, Google has assumed the mantle of moral arbiter for society at large. Rather than letting the public come to their own conclusions on the many topics discussed on these sites, they are setting the standards for us. Compliance is mandatory if one wishes to stay in the public sphere. While Google is a private company with the freedom to make such decisions, that does not mean that their position is any less problematic for our public discourse. There are, of course, some reasonable restrictions Google ought to impose, given the position of power they hold, such as restrictions on publications like the Daily Stormer, which openly advocate violence. However, irrespective of what any individual may feel about the Federalist, its content is in no way comparable to that of the Daily Stormer.
The second problem is that Google has not just mandated that these sites comply with their worldview, but that the comments on these sites also comply. This is a standard that they demand other websites meet, but fail to meet themselves. Google owns YouTube, the most popular video platform in the world, and the number of objectively racist comments on that platform is easily in the millions. If they cannot control their own platform, what right do they have to censor others for failing to uphold their policies, when even Google fails to comply with its own standards. Websites like the New York Times and the Washington Post receive many thousands of comments per published article, and may publish hundreds of articles per day.
The third problem with Google’s policy to “explicitly prohibit derogatory content that promotes hatred, intolerance, violence or discrimination” is their failure to enforce this policy in an objective or neutral way. The Washington Post contains an article entitled “Why Can’t We Hate Men?” The New York Times has an article entitled “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?” The Root has an article entitled “10 Wypipo We Need To Call The Cops On”—a list that includes “Overly Nice White People” and “White People In Black Neighborhoods.” The Root article may be satire, but Google’s policy does not make an exception for satire, and the other articles mentioned are indisputably serious in tone and argument and their host sites attract far more traffic than the Federalist. The reason that the Federalist is under scrutiny—but not the other websites mentioned—is because of Google’s corporate prejudice towards conservatives and towards heterodox viewpoints on social topics more generally. To illustrate this, imagine the following scenario.
There is a small town in the middle of the United States, with one main road and a speed limit of 55 mph. The police routinely set up speed traps to generate revenue for the township. Any black motorist traveling at a speed even slightly in excess of the limit is pulled over and fined, while white motorists are routinely allowed to grossly exceed the speed limit without repercussions. When questioned about the disparity in their traffic stops, the police refer to the posted speed limit and say that the motorists they pulled over were breaking the law.
Is the conduct of the police discriminatory in the above scenario? Can it really be wrong to pull over black motorists who are breaking the law? Most people would correctly answer yes to both questions, yet many of those same people would probably consider Google’s actions non-discriminatory.
This leads us to the fourth, and arguably most important problem. By targeting not just conservative websites, but the comments sections of some websites, while ignoring the sexism and racism at the core of the articles listed above, they are tacitly endorsing those viewpoints. Not only is Google setting the standard for acceptable discourse, the standard they are setting is a moral abomination. It’s time to sound the alarm. The malignant identity politics at the heart of a piece that argues that black and white children cannot be friends has so poisoned our public discourse that many people either do not see the problem with such a piece, or even agree with it.
It is time to start to organize an effective movement against these measures. Peaceful marches outside the headquarters of tech and social media conglomerates would probably be the most effective use of current resources. Open letters to the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Twitter and other media companies, and signed by both conservative and liberal public personalities, along with politicians and members of the public, would also draw attention to this issue. The state of our discourse, and the institutional gatekeeping surrounding it is getting worse, not better. It is time to take action.