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What’s the Score on Censorship?

What’s the Score on Censorship?
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A closer look at how search engines like Google are picking winners and losers. Action Alert!

We at ANH have been deeply concerned about the growing trend of censorship on the part of major Internet gatekeepers. We decided to see how deep the censorship goes by comparing the results of natural health searches on four different search engines: Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Startpage. We found significant differences among these companies, but the biggest takeaway is that search engines seem to be picking winners and losers in the sites they prioritize, which is a big problem for the free flow of information.

Our search terms included the following:

  • vitamin D flu
  • bioidentical hormones
  • homeopathy
  • fluoride safety
  • 5G safety
  • GMO safety
  • natural cold remedies
  • natural menopause treatment

The most striking takeaway was the degree to which WebMD and the Mayo Clinic dominated these searches: for the eight search terms listed above, either one, the other, or both of WebMD and the Mayo Clinic showed up in the top five hits for six out of the eight terms. In two cases (“GMO safety” and “fluoride safety”), DuckDuckGo and Bing turned up a WebMD article in the top five when Google and Startpage did not.

Clearly these gatekeepers rate information from these sources very highly, but can they be trusted? The Mayo Clinic receives $336.7 million in funding per year from federal and state governments, and $114.6 million from industry. It is no surprise, then, that much of the content is skeptical, at best, of natural medicine.

As we reported previously, WebMD is reliable—in that they can be relied upon to sell 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. A search through WebMD’s pages on depression shows that they contain ads for antidepressant drugs.

The results for the “natural cold remedies” search are instructive. The top result in Google was the Mayo Clinic, and another top result was WebMD. The Mayo Clinic’s page on home remedies for the cold doesn’t recommend any supplements; it does, however, recommend Tylenol, Advil, or other pain killers, and other over-the-counter drugs. This is natural medicine? WebMD was much the same in that it didn’t recommend any supplements, though it did recommend some foods to eat with a cold. Bing and DuckDuckGo also had WebMD and Mayo Clinic in their top five searches, but Bing displayed an article from Dr. Mercola, a trusted source of natural health information.

The search for “vitamin D flu” on Bing and DuckDuckGo resulted in a Mercola article and an article from Dr. Andrew Weil, another important voice in the natural health sphere, in the top 5. Neither Dr. Weil nor Dr. Mercola showed up in Google or Startpage’s top five.

For searches on “fluoride safety,” “GMO safety,” and “5G safety,” the overwhelming majority of the top five results were articles defending the safety of fluoride, GMOs, and 5G. All top five results defended the safety of fluoride and GMOs for Google and Startpage, for example.

These results have the fingerprints of Google’s “quality raters” all over them. Recall that Google is now manually lowering the rankings of undesirable content with the help of third party “quality raters.” These quality raters visit websites and, as their name suggests, evaluate the quality of a website. Raters then send this information to Google engineers who update their algorithm to throttle content that is deemed of low quality. Sites that question conventional wisdom seem to be relegated in Google searches more than others. This helps explain why a search for “natural cold remedies” gives us websites that recommend anything but real natural health advice.

Consider that, of these searches, Dr. Mercola came up only three times out of 24 searches (eight search terms on three search engines): in Bing’s results for natural cold remedies, and Bing and DuckDuckGo’s results for vitamin D and the flu. This 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.

Gatekeepers like Google might like us to think that using their search engine puts the information of the Internet at our fingertips, but this is an empty promise. With the use of “quality raters”—quite an Orwellian term—Google is curating content and undermining the democratic nature of the Internet. It means that those who challenge established medical orthodoxies can effectively be silenced. It will be 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. It is far too much power for a handful of executives at Google, Facebook, Pinterest, and other sites to wield.

We must oppose this censorship.

Action Alert! Write to Congress and tell them to tackle Internet censorship! Please send your message immediately.

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