I would say the majority of people love thinking about the big picture whether it would be getting a promotion, or a breakthrough in your career, or having a family with two children. People want the…
Supposedly, this was in response to Russia “hacking” the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
I don’t believe any such thing occurred, but even if it did, the “hacking” had literally nothing to do with RT’s broadcasts. RT broadcasts 100% legally in the United States, and there’s never even been an allegation that it has broken any American campaign or electoral laws.
I have no idea what the legal definition of “de-ranking” is, but based on the laws of English grammar, I assumed that it meant that Google search results would return RT/Sputnik links further down than links from other sources. It isn’t censorship per se, but it’s a blatant omission of prejudice on Google’s part.
Nonetheless, all of this had nothing to do with me, so I filed it away in my mental archive and went about my business.
All of that changed a few months ago because of this picture:
As far as these things go, it’s not very controversial. It’s simply a man, his wife, and two of their children standing in a rather bedraggled public park.
Or so I thought.
I don’t want to get too bogged down in the picayune details of politics in Eastern Europe, but I happen to live just a few miles from a place that doesn’t officially exist.
And because nobody in the “West” understands the place or speaks the local languages, literally everything written, blogged, and ‘Grammed about it in English is farcical to the extreme.
In short, it’s a living embodiment of “Fake News,” so much so that even the name of the country is wrong. Nonetheless, to keep this short, I’ll skip all the pedantic details.
The man in the above photo is named Vadim Krasnoselsky. He’s the president of Transnistria, which again, is not the name of the country, but it’s what everyone in the “west” calls it.
He’s posing for the photo in a park in a city named Tiraspol with two of his three kids and his wife. I’ve been to Tiraspol, and I know for a fact that the city has a lot of very nice parks, so I was really curious why he would pose for a photo in such an obviously ugly place (and then post it online).
I had found the photo on the website of Adevarul (“The Truth”), which is a Romanian newspaper. Romania, for complex geopolitical reasons, is locked in a bitter propaganda war with Transnistria, so I began to wonder if the photo had been manipulated (“Photoshopped”).
First, you can see that Vadim Krasnoselsky is dressed up in a suit and tie, looking sober and official, but his wife looks angry and isn’t facing the camera. Vadim is staring off into the distance too.
Likewise, the youngest daughter is looking away from the camera, and the lighting on the eldest daughter seemed incongruous. And they’re all standing in front of an ugly patch of dirt and bare trees.
For propaganda purposes, it would make sense that a Romanian newspaper would Photoshop a picture of Krasnoselsky. But did they?
Well, the easiest way to find out if a photo has been faked is to do a “reverse image search.” Google offers this option, so I plugged in the photo, but the only result was from the same Adevarul article where I had originally found it.
So, was the photo faked or not? And where did it come from? As president of the country, there are lots of pictures of Krasnoselsky on the internet, but not too many of his wife and even fewer of his kids.
I knew Adevarul didn’t take the photo because Krasnoselsky would never agree to talk to a Romanian newspaper, so what was going on?
I must’ve sorted through hundreds of photos of him trying to find one where his head and gaze matched that of the ugly park photo. I found some possible candidates, but none of them were a complete match.
It seemed like it was going to be an unsolvable mystery until I had the brilliant idea of trying a different search engine other than Google. Krasnoselsky speaks Russian, so I decided to give Yandex a whirl.
Yandex is the “Russian Google”, so I plugged in the photo into their reverse image search.
Voilà! It instantly returned a Sputnik article that was an interview (in Russian) with Krasnoselsky. The Sputnik article had the same photo and even credited the photographer, so now I knew that it was legitimate and from where it had come.
Of course, I still don’t know why Vadim and his family decided to pose in front of that ugly park or why the Sputnik photographer chose that image where the whole family is looking away from the camera, but at least I had tracked down the original source.
Google hadn’t just “de-ranked” the Sputnik article, it had completely erased it from the search results.
I use Gmail for most of my email correspondence, and I’ve always been impressed by how good it is at automatically sending BS emails straight to the “spam” folder while keeping legitimate ones in my inbox. It isn’t a perfect system, but it works really, really well.
A few months after the business with the photo, I wrote an email (in Russian) to a government agency in “Transnistria” about an unrelated issue. After a few days of not hearing from them, I checked my “spam” folder.
Lo and behold, Google had classified the email as “spam,” which is why I hadn’t seen it.
I rescued it and placed it in my inbox. In the email, they informed me that I needed to address my inquiry to a different government agency. I then wrote a brand-new email, waited a few days for a reply, and — you guessed it — found the response in my “spam” folder.
At this point, I had two emails from two different government agencies in “Transnistria” being sent to my spam folder even though they were completely legitimate in every possible way.
Well, I figured, Transnistria is a political hot potato and the country only has one internet provider, so maybe Google was just proactively censoring all communication from Transnistrian IPs, government agencies or not.
All was fine for a few more weeks.
I then started exchanging a few emails (in English!) with one of my relatives who lives in the United States. She was asking me about information for an upcoming trip she was planning to a remote area of central Bulgaria. Neither of us speaks Bulgarian, but I can read the Cyrillic alphabet, so I was doing my best to help her by doing some online research.
Along the way, she looped me in with one of her colleagues, another American, whom I’ve never met or exchanged emails with before. I copy-pasted a few Bulgarian city names (in Cyrillic) so that they could print them out and give them to taxi drivers if they (the drivers) didn’t speak English.
So far, so good.
But when I mentioned that Russian was commonly spoken in that area, and it would be good to learn a few basic phrases, everything went haywire.
My relative continued to receive my emails just fine, but it took a few days before her colleague realized that my emails to her (Gmail address) were going straight to her spam inbox.
Mind you, all of the non-Russian emails had gone through just fine, but suddenly, the one with exactly two lines of Russian had been auto-categorized by Google as “spam.” Meanwhile, later emails that had no Russian in them were being received just fine.
But why was my relative getting my emails and her colleague not?
It was only later that I put two and two together and realized that Gmail was censoring all Russian-language emails if they’re not from a whitelisted address (i.e. someone on your contact list).
Mind you, none of what we were discussing was controversial or even political. But Google still felt it necessary to classify it as “spam.”
I was honestly starting to believe I was paranoid until I started researching Google’s history of censorship.
Which is far creepier, in my opinion.
I have no idea how far this goes. All I can find online is a lot of angry people talking about it, mostly in regards to YouTube (which Google owns). Since a lot of those angry people are on the “fringe,” it’s impossible for me to separate exaggeration and hyperbole from cold, hard facts.
But is Google doing it too? And, if so, how would anyone know?
For many reasons, very few people speak both Russian and English, and very few Russian-speakers use Gmail for email or Google for searches. I have no idea how many people are like me, an English speaker who uses primarily American internet products (Google, et al) and only occasionally communicates and searches for things in Russian.
Therefore, I don’t know whether I’m making a mountain out of a molehill or whether Google is actively censoring (not just “de-ranking”) all Russian-language content for English speakers, or if I somehow got on their personal shitlist.
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