Google AI Censorship: Google Reverses Itself Fully on Demonetization Threat After Intervention by Matt Taibbi and Our Demonstration of Pervasive Errors

We were very gratified at the degree to which readers were concerned and came to our aid after Google put a demonetization sword of Damocles over our head in March. The online ad behemoth designated what it said were 16 posts since 2018 of grievous offenses, such as [ANTI_VACCINATION, HATEFUL_CONTENT, DEMONSTRABLY_FALSE_DEMOCRATIC PROCESS,HARMFUL_HEALTH_CLAIM]. The fact that the Google algo can’t even count was an obvious indicator of how careless the entire process was. (there were only 14 posts due to duplication and inclusion of a non-post). Google had already demonetized theses posts. The threat was that if we did not remove these posts and refrain from future falsely depicted bad behavior, Google would demonetize the entire site.

This was a serious ultimatum. Even though donations provide a substantial majority of our revenues, the loss of the comparatively small ad revenues would still hurt, particularly since we are now in a tough fundraising environment.

To spare you undue suspense, our ad agency notified us yesterday that Google has cleared all the targeted URLs, so now we are in good standing again. Please keep in mind we did not remove a single word from any post, much the less delete any. The only change we made was one where we thought there was material that could offend an advertiser, as in a not-very-well pixelated image of a decapitated head in a 2018. And its author, Mark Ames, suggested we delete it as non-essential to the story.

So while this stressful case finally came to a sound resolution as far as we were concerned, it only served to validate our depiction of the Google AI censorship. From our March post:

We posted briefly on a message from our ad service in which Google threatened to demonetize the site. The e-mail listed what it depicted as 16 posts from 2018 to present that it claimed violated Google policy. The full e-mail and the spreadsheet listing the posts Google objected to are at the end of this post as footnote 1.

We consulted several experts. All are confident that Google relied on algorithms to single out these posts. As we will explain, they also stressed that whatever Google is doing here, it is not for advertisers.

Given the gravity of Google’s threat, it is shocking that the AI results are plainly and systematically flawed. The algos did not even accurately identify unique posts that had advertising on them, which is presumably the first screen in this process. Google actually fingered only 14 posts in its spreadsheet, and not 16 as shown, for a false positive rate merely on identifying posts accurately, of 12.5%.

Those 14 posts are out of 33,000 over the history of the site and approximately 20,000 over the time frame Google apparently used, 2018 to now. So we are faced with an ad embargo over posts that at best are less than 0.1% of our total content.

And of those 14, Google stated objections for only 8. Of those 8, nearly all, as we will explain, look nonsensical on their face.

The post then went through the Google material and our posts in detail. For another high-level indication of how off-base these designations were, one heavily dinged for anti-vax was a foreign policy piece, on Chalmers Johnson, by Tom Engelhardt. Another sanctioned work was by the Barnard College professor of economics, Rajiv Sethi. A third was a cross post from VoxEU. None had gotten any complaints, let alone of the sort Google was lodging.

Our ad service did go to bat on our behalf with Google and registered well-supported objections. Rajiv Sethi also posted on l’affaire Google. But what we suspect turned the tide was the Matt Taibbi post, Meet the AI-Censored? Naked Capitalism. Taibbi focused on key issues, namely the chilling effect of this sort of campaign, as we recapped:

Taibbi nailed one of the key reasons why the Google sanctions were so off base: “…this is a common feature of moderation machines; they can’t distinguish between advocacy and criticism.” And he also cited examples where articles in highly respected medical journals which raised doubts about Covid vaccine performance triggered warnings like [HARMFUL_HEALTH_CLAIMS, ANTI_VACCINATION, HATEFUL_CONTENT].

Taibbi’s post was picked by Citizen Free Press and Real Clear Politics, so it got views on top of ones from his substantial readership.

Since the Google process was opaque (our ad service dealt with their rep who then forwarded our material to another Google team, so they never interacted directly with the deciders), I have no idea whether a normal escalation would have been treated fairly.

The only other similarly-situated Google victim I found by happenstance (one of only two sites where we talk operations shop) got a less severe threat, got Google to reverse on some posts, and got Google to identify the offending text on others, which he deleted rather than going another round.

By contrast, on its first go, the ad service had Google drop its objections to 13 of the 14 actual posts, then relented on the last one when the ad service asked Google to identify the supposedly. offending final piece.

So this was a total capitulation by Google when it faced a well-documented response backed by a high-profile journalist. While we are grateful that this is over for now, we have no reason to think that Google had taken any steps to correct the rogue algos that produced these flagrantly bad results, nor increased human review to catch the errors.

And don’t think that small independent sites won’t be subject to new censorship threats, given how determined the Biden Administration is to limit wrong-speech and think. Just look at the aggressive crackdown of pro-Palestine protests on campus. It’s not hard to imagine censorship of pro-Palestine speech is coming soon.

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  1. David in Friday Harbor

    Without a high-level apology and a full explanation this was hardly a “total capitulation.” This incident is simply helping these dirt-bags train their AI to suppress dissent better…

  2. Mark Gisleson

    Under such circumstances, the best thing you could have done was to loudly amplify your concerns and Taibbi helped admirably with that. The e-establishment can still be embarrassed into doing the right thing and that’s the most hope-inspiring thing I’ve heard in a while.

    Take a well deserved victory lap: you are permitted to continue doing what you were doing so well!

    1. GramSci

      Yes, do take a victory lap, Yves! But I don’t think Google was so much embarrassed as threatened by the possible precedent of a feisty little law suit they might not win. As Yves says, Sillycon Valley will continue trying to silence wrongthink sites whenever any administration asks them to.

  3. The Rev Kev

    Finally a bit of good news. I have learned to take the victories where you can find them.

    1. WillD

      Good news has become a rare commodity, these days. It would be even better if the people behind it genuinely apologised for the mistake.

      More good news, please. Someone?

  4. JTMcPhee

    It’s… just… too… much… work… to… resist… or… fight…back…

    They have billions of lines of code running in essentially infinite machines, all dedicated to purging Infospace (c)(tm) of any vestige of Resistance (c) ™.

    But thank you for carrying that little torch, and righting one of the infinite number of wrong and intentionally evil acts. I’m sending a sadly paltry contribution to help your efforts.

    Is there a succession plan, dare I ask, for this invaluable public resource?

    1. Ignacio

      Yes but now everyone has this Damocles’ sword that make people loose a lot of valuable time defending themselves from the “algo-attacks”. This is an example on technology making life more complicated instead of helping (besides the AI-led crapification of services).

  5. Es s Ce Tera

    Congratulations, this is a huge relief!

    But I do still think that NC was targeted and maybe one day we’ll learn how. My reasoning is their categorization here was so bad that if Google were doing this on a widespread basis we’d be hearing of this happening everywhere, so I don’t think it was AI.

    I’m more inclined to think that someone didn’t like you, so set wheels in motion, then in response someone at some governmental agency Coalition Against Very Bad Words and Bad Thoughts Fusion Centre did a quick Google keyword search and cried out, vindicated, and heart racing sent some faceless meaningless Google bureaucrat contact a hot list, who then forwarded it to Google Level Two Spanking And Punishment, who began commencement of the spanking without checking, and now someone with half a brain has actually checked, foiling the evil plans (insert required pinky finger) of whichever power Karen/Ken didn’t like you in the first place, probably AIPAC, could be HRC.

    1. Wukchumni

      This really only came about after NC went after Zionism, the powers that be didn’t seem to care about the site being a fly in the ointment in regards to the Ukraine debacle.

      Look at the concerted effort all over the USA to arrest young people in highfalutin higher learning academies who are concerned about the genocide Israel is in the midst of performing, its open season on them-many with an arrest record now that will hamper their ability to become useful citizens.

      1. JBird4049

        IIRC, after NC had some favorable posts/comments on ivermectin “horse paste,” they put heavy enough pressure on the site that Yves Smith cracked down on the mere mention of the I-word in the comments.

        What worries me is all the sites that have less resources than this one as well as what future ideas will be censored. It is not good that many people especially older are not aware of just how censored the media is and therefore how propagandized, manipulated, and ignorant or misinformed that they are. This reduces the pushback to the censoring.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          We do not allow medical advice any more than we allow financial advice. Since we moderate the comments section, we are legally liable for comments. IVM is a prescription medication. Readers were trying to discuss specific dosing of veterinary IVM and even where to get it. I can’t possibly allow that sort of thing.

        2. flora

          Heh. You are surely not referencing the pseudonominous fellow of Wiki fame who showed up on NC suddenly back in the day are you? (ye gawds, it was obvious.) / ;)

          adding: most who could read between the lines did so. As they say. / ;)

  6. Carla

    Good for Yves! She stands up to bullies and never backs down in the face of a threat. We are so proud of you, Yves!

      1. Carla

        Oops, wish I could tip the jar every day, but my tip today is in honor of the courage Yves displays EVERY day.

  7. Yaiyen

    This is why in my mind journalist like matt, glenn, grayzone boys and journalist on this site are threat to power. They dont pick sides and they dont do fence sitting. The storys they also do have real impact in society. This is why they want to keep these journalist down and push establishment and fence sitting journalist to the front

  8. Glenda

    My check is in the mail – Thanks for being Here. NC helps me keep my sanity in a World-Gone-Mad. I read here every day.

  9. Lunker Walleye

    Congratulations, Yves! I admire your stamina in this situation and others that you have recently written about.

  10. flora

    I understand all of this. Truly, I do. I think there needs to be a financial way for you and other sites to be able to say, “F* you, google.” That’s the only free speech way forward, imo. Elst-wise you remain beholden to the financial and/or online middlemen standing between you and your audience. / my 2 cents.

  11. WG

    I don’t doubt there was/is nefarious elements at work with a lot of demonetization but Google is also largely incompetent as well. I had an online magazine I was trying to get going in 2008 (before social media had erupted) and got demonetized. I was just writing features type stuff, nothing really controversial. I couldn’t contact Google to get an explanation. Had no idea what the reason was. And still 16 years later can’t create an ad account under my Google email. This wasn’t unique. There were a lot of such reports at the time. There is also the constant shuffle with Youtube where music which is copyrighted by one entity AND posted by them is being demonetized (supposedly, since ads still run before them).

  12. MFB

    Breaking news:


    Now, back to our regular program supporting inequality, corporate crime, disinformation and genocide . . .

  13. Darius

    Taibbi gets withering hatred from liberals these days. I don’t have time to delve into the details but, given his past output, I am inclined to be sympathetic towards him unless shown concrete evidence with full context as to supposed new reactionary tendencies. So far, I have seen nothing more than liberal tribalism.

    So good on him for weighing in on this Google travesty.

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