Google is the world’s largest newsstand. It boasts that it delivers 24 billion clicks to news articles every month.
Google has increasingly prioritised recent news in its search results, both within the main search engine and with a dedicated Google News page. Its users, which include almost everyone with an internet connection, generally give the brand very high trust ratings above other tech companies, which transfers to headlines displayed in its results.
Yet a review of English language news stories about Estonia elevated to the top of Google News in recent weeks reveals multiple examples of stories that fail basic journalistic standards and, in some cases, appear to be clear propaganda.
This raises wider questions globally about Google’s impact on shaping access to news information in which it has an outsized role that has not been scrutinised as closely as social media platforms with far fewer users.
Even those who don’t routinely use Google to find news are still heavily influenced by its results. Google News is a convenient tool for ‘superspreaders’ of online information who use it to easily discover the newest content related to their keywords of interest before disseminating it across social media.
The “Baltic experts”
The most egregious of recent examples of Google News prioritising poor quality news content was at the start of this week when its top story presented about the Baltic states was headlined: ‘Ukrainian refugees are becoming a burden to the Baltic states’.
The article, from an obscure blog based in India, cites “Baltic experts” who the author implied reflected widespread public opinion in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
However, their statements only contained absurd Kremlin narratives, including that Ukrainian “forced guests” are now the entitled “masters” of the Baltic states, while Russians are second class citizens, and the “needy indigenous” are left in poverty and have to flee abroad for opportunities.
The article was based on a discussion that took place between six “Baltic experts”, two from each country, at a joint discussion conference. So who were they? Upon further examination, it is a list of individuals with clear and strong links to the Kremlin who can not in any credible way be said to reflect wider public sentiment.
From Estonia were Allan Hantsom and Maksim Reva. Both are prolific Kremlin propagandists who have previously been featured in both Propastop and Estonia’s internal spy agency’s annual yearbook for subversive, and in some cases criminally convicted, activities. Reva, who had a key role organising the riots that took place in Estonia in 2007, actually now lives in Russia and is barred from entering Estonia.
From Latvia were two would-be fringe politicians whose parties failed to even pass the minimum threshold required for a single seat in Parliament. Rūdolfs Bremenis was described in the article as a diplomat, but is very much an ex-diplomat and is currently on trial in Latvia for fraud. Meanwhile, Jūlija Sohina is described as representing the ‘Community of Parents’, which few have heard of, but attempted to get elected through the Russian Union of Latvia.
From Lithuania were two individuals closely connected to Algirdas Paleckis, who denies Soviet atrocities and was convicted in Lithuania for spying on behalf of Russia. Darius Norkus is the chairman of his “Dawn of Justice” movement, while Erika Švenčioniene was representing the International Neighbourhood Forum, also founded by Paleckis, which is currently facing liquidation in a civil case in Lithuania due to its alleged illegal activities relating to supporting Russia’s war and being connected to the Kremlin.
The article notes that the individuals all spoke Russian with each other, which it attributes to its statement that “the inhabitants of the Baltic states prefer Russian”. This is a statement that anyone with local knowledge of the Baltic countries would find incredulous.
The article is a poor imitation of journalism. It lacks expertise and credible analysis, presents serious falsehoods – such as the attribution of these comments to a Latvian “diplomat”, and is not even written in a journalistic style.
And, yet, the article received a disproportionate attention it didn’t deserve. For example, the story was quickly tweeted out by US journalist Garland Nixon to his nearly 70,000 followers, many of whom accepted the narrative. It is unlikely that Nixon came across the story because he is a regular reader of the obscure blog.
So how did it get propelled to the top of Google News?
How Google prioritises news
Google’s search engine has a global market share of over 90%, which has made it the world’s most popular website.
It has clung onto that top spot by continuously attempting to improve its ability to return relevant and quality content. That means it is now far more difficult than in its earlier days to use the search engine to find exact matches of keywords across the internet and through time. It prefers to show the most popular and recent content, even if it’s more loosely connected to the keywords.
That strategy led to an increased focus on recent news.
Google has developed a criteria for deciding which publishers qualify as quality news, as well as algorithms for choosing which of their stories to elevate in its ranking of results.
In an effort to avoid the manipulation of its results by search optimisation specialists, Google is notoriously untransparent about its ever evolving methods for prioritising websites. It prefers to explain that websites should focus on quality, original content and general good practices for website construction – and not attempt to second guess hacks that might prioritise their content.
Google previously had a clear application process for websites to be listed as news publishers, but the selection is now largely in the hands of Google, which finds them itself. However, publishers can sign up to their ‘Publisher Centre’, which clearly seems to help the process, and it directs publishers to take note of its Google News best practises and Google News policies, which cover basic advice, such as prohibiting dangerous and misleading content.
Anyone who has used Google News over recent years will have noticed that it has considerably relaxed its definition of news providers. That’s not just because obscure blogs are now presented alongside the world’s most recognisable news outlets. Google News now also includes a wide range of publishers that don’t even define their business as journalism. Much of these websites are maintaining a blog for what is essentially content marking or even serving as a PR distribution service so are able to place promotional press releases, unedited by a journalist, into Google’s news results.
Red Bull, for example, is theoretically a drinks company, but its business is dominated by content creation with a heavy focus on extreme sports. It could call itself a media outlet that happens to sell drinks on the side. Many publishers listed in Google News do not focus on nearly as much on media, nor can claim to be as objective in their areas of interest.
Based on Google’s advice to publishers, its definition of a news publisher is only really a website that frequently publishes timely content to a basic written standard, is determined to have some reasonable authority and accuracy on its subjects, and keeps commercial interests on its websites to less than half of its ‘news’ content, all of which should be clearly labelled even when it is advertising content written as news. The lines between a media outlet with a clear outlook that shapes its editorial, which is to be expected of news publishers, and a website campaigning on a specific agenda, whether commercial or otherwise, is not considered.
It is inevitable therefore that the results can also include content written entirely for the purposes of state propaganda, which are relatively easy to be placed into Google News, whether through websites that are clear about their agenda or not.
Google says that when they find content or behavior that violates these policies, they may remove the content from their listings and, if it is repeated, remove the website entirely from its list of publishers. However, there appears to be no complaint procedure for anyone else to notify Google of violations. It is unclear how, for example, employees at Google would have enough time or knowledge to notice and understand the problems with the article given as an example above.
And violations of its policies are relatively easy to find.
What else we found
Anyone trying to follow local news in Estonia in English from abroad might conclude that online gambling is one of the most important industries across the Baltic countries.
That’s because the Baltic Times, which regularly appears in Google News results, repeatedly writes on the subject. These articles are not labeled as sponsored posts, but are clearly written by authors without local knowledge of the Baltic countries in order to provide links to commercial sponsors. Errors in local knowledge can be seen, for example, in reference to the Baltic countries as having been founded only in 1991. A glance at the Baltic Times website reveals an entire ‘analysis’ news tab that contains only unlabelled sponsored posts, many of which are entirely unconnected to the Baltic countries.
The outlet also annoyed Estonian officials when it published a series of articles advertising a cryptocurrency that stated it was being launched by the Estonian government, which was false.
The Baltic Times was founded as the first pan-Baltic English media outlet in 1996, but has declined considerably since then with a key turning point being the mass resignation of staff due in part to concerns about how the Baltic Times was prioritising commercial interests within its editorials.
Google does not seem to have noticed that this practice continues in violation of its own rules.
Another publication occasionally showing up in Google News results about Estonia is BNE IntelliNews.
BNE was founded to be a key supplier to one of Russia’s largest propaganda campaigns, Russia Beyond The Headlines. Its founder and editor has worked extensively for Russian state media, received a ‘Business Journalist of the Year’ award from them, appeared on RT, and has written sympathetically about Putin as a “vilified” leader.
While none of this would exclude the media outlet from being listed by Google News, it is an example of how the proliferation of online news outlets elevated by Google News makes it increasingly challenging to understand the biases involved.
Propastop itself has an agenda – to combat misinformation against Estonia and is written by volunteers mostly part of the Estonian Defence League – but this is clearly explained and we will always do our best to maintain journalistic standards of accuracy. We can not fact check every headline about Estonia, but we should all expect the world’s top website, whose founding motto is ‘don’t be evil’ to improve the way it assesses journalism. Access to quality journalism is essential for democracy. Google’s market dominance gives it a huge responsibility it must live up to.