Will the powers that be allow a freer internet?
Elon Musk has been making headlines with his intention to buy Twitter for the purpose of promoting greater freedom of speech, but powerful forces could stand in his way. This is part of a much larger trend of censorship that has taken over the internet, even at sites that claim to offer unfiltered search results.
Musk conducted a poll on Twitter, saying “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” More than two-thirds (70.4 percent) said “no.” He has spoken about the need for an “inclusive arena for free speech.” You would think these comments are uncontroversial. Yet the government could very well try to stand in his way. A former SEC chairman recently said that the Biden administration or even Congress could get involved to prevent Musk’s takeover of Twitter.
As many of us know, this is not the only threat to free speech on the internet. Google, by far the most popular search engine, has aggressively clamped down on free speech, and those who seek to educate the public about natural health are paying the price. This censorship led to the creation of search engines which promise privacy and unbiased searches. Unfortunately, many of these alternatives are joining in on the censorship that is marring American public life.
DuckDuckGo, a search engine that promised to protect user privacy and to produce unbiased search results, recently announced it will down-rank sites associated with “Russian disinformation.” This may not seem controversial, but the problem is who decides what counts as “disinformation”? As soon as sites get into the business of ranking information based on something other than popularity, problems start to arise. It made us wonder: can any search engines be trusted?
In 2020, we compared several search engines in terms of what results they produced based on a number of natural health searches. We found that, across the board, WebMD and the Mayo Clinic—both of which represent mainstream medicine—dominated the searches in Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Startpage.
Since then, other search engines have sprung up offering unfiltered search results, such as Qwant and Gibiru, so we did the same searches on these to see if the results were any better.
In our 2020 analysis, DuckDuckGo and Bing produced some results from Joseph Mercola’s site, a trusted source of natural health information. In more recent searches, Mercola’s site did not come up on DuckDuckGo, Bing, Qwant, Gibiru—nor, of course, on the search engines (Google and Startpage) that had originally not produced any results from Mercola. That Mercola.com never came up in any of these searches is troubling. It is by no means the only measure, but it is an important measure as to how seriously search engines are taking trusted, credible natural health sites.
In a search for “natural cold remedies,” most of the searches give you at least one site in the top five results that deals with some natural medicine, but these are from what we might call natural health “lite” sites like healthline.com or verywellhealth.com. They offer some basic information about things like garlic, ginger, vitamin C, and Echinacea, but often the advice is quite measured: “some evidence suggests” vitamin D “may help” with colds. Compare this to information supplied by Mercola, and you see a world of difference.
Unfortunately, the newer search engines like Qwant and Gibibru don’t seem to offer much improvement. On the “fluoride safety” search, Qwant offered one article in the top five that said fluoride wasn’t safe; Gibibru did not. In almost all cases, government sources, or institutions parroting the government, dominate the searches. DuckDuckGo (despite the recent announcement) and Qwant seem to offer the most promise out of all these options, but unfortunately that isn’t saying too much. It seems it is extremely difficult to escape the censors these days.
We’ve pointed out the many issues with internet censorship before, particularly as it applies to issues of natural health. When Google changed their algorithm for search results to be based on “quality ratings” as opposed to popularity, traffic to Mercola.com, the site of famed natural health advocate Joseph Mercola, MD, fell an astonishing 99% over the span of a few weeks.
And then there are the “trusted” sources according to Google, but the only thing “trustworthy” about these sites is that they can be relied upon to try to sell us drugs. WebMD was caught in 2010 providing users with a fake quiz meant to screen for depression in which 100% of respondents ended up having a “high likelihood of major depression” and were directed to talk to their physician about treatment. The quiz was sponsored by Eli Lilly, which makes the depression drug Cymbalta.
Note that Google dwarfs all other competitors when it comes to search engine traffic. DuckDuckGo processes around 1.5 billion searches every month; Google processes 3.5 billion searches a day. So while it is disheartening that DuckDuckGo may not be the alternative so many of us want, Google is still the behemoth in search traffic and its practices are harming the free flow of information.
What does all this mean? Those who challenge established medical orthodoxies are targets for censorship. It is much, much harder to educate the public about important scientific information relating to our health. It means that monopolistic organizations like Google have a stranglehold on what information can reach the public and what gets buried. Competitors who try to go outside of the Google model end up emulating it.
Every totalitarian dictator throughout history is a testament to the fact that the unrestricted flow of information is paramount in a free society, and we relinquish this freedom at our own peril.