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Saturday, August 17, 2019

The readers’ editor on Google and editorial independence

or a newspaper to carry advertising for a company such as Google is not the same as endorsing that company or, indeed, its goods
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Google has come under fire in the Observer recently in a series of investigations that revealed how rightwingers had manipulated the search engine’s algorithms to create a sinister new reality, particularly around Holocaust denial, Muslims and women, with hate sites such as Stormfront finding their way to the top of search rankings. After nearly a month of pressure, Google, which initially resisted making any changes, eventually bumped the white supremacists out of the way – on some searches, at least.

Google’s late move came after the Observer had found a way to push the neo-Nazis down the rankings: for £289, the paper placed an advertisement at the top of search results about the Holocaust. “The Holocaust really happened,” said the advert. “Six million Jews really did die. These search results are propagating lies. Please take action.”

Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer journalist who broke the story, wrote that the company had shown that it would not respond to outrage or public sentiment “but it was prepared to take my cold, hard cash… I did it with the only language that Google understands: money”.

Her latest piece in the series filled page 3 on 18 December, our last issue before Christmas. And yet that same issue appeared, not with a traditional front page but with a four-page “wraparound” advertisement for Google’s new Pixel phone. Readers were understandably bemused.

“There was a delicious irony in the lambasting of Google for responding to ‘the only language it understands: money’ when the Observer allowed an advertisement for Google’s Pixel phone to hijack its front, back and inside covers. Money does indeed talk,” was a typical response.

“I am writing to say how disappointed I was to see a wraparound advert for Google rather than your normal front page,” another reader wrote. “After last week’s articles regarding Google’s algorithms, with even more reports in this edition [18 December], it seems that you are supporting Google in what it does.

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