Google has booted fringe libertarian/conspiracist page Zerohedge from its AdSense platform over user comments and warned crackpot haven the Federalist that it could face the same fate, NBC News reported on Tuesday. The Federalist, which has postured itself as a haven for ideological outcasts of all stripes to post things that are definitely not deranged or racist, responded by turning off its comments section entirely.
NBC’s London-based investigative unit had reached out to Google after a post by Stop Funding Fake News, a project of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), listed the two sites as among 10 that were spreading misinformation and “racist narratives” about ongoing protests against the police killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd and systemic racism in U.S. police departments.
Stop Funding Fake News had highlighted two examples from the Federalist: a June 3, 2020 post claiming that the media was lying about “everything” related to the Floyd protests and a 2017 post claiming protests against racism by NFL players “dishonors every American, especially if they’re white.” Zerohedge was highlighted for claiming the Black Lives Matter movement is an “Astroturf” campaign that is “practically a revolutionary operative of the CIA” working for billionaire George Soros, a frequent target of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. (Police detonated a suspected mail bomb sent to Soros in 2018.)
“Millions of people and thousands of companies have come out in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter,” CCDH CEO Imran Ahmed told Gizmodo in a statment. “But we found lots of those companies are through their advertising inadvertently funding content that is outright racist, in defense of white supremacism, or contains conspiracy theories about George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. By taking action to stop their advertisements on these websites they can back up their welcome words of solidarity with real action to defund hate.”
A Google spokesperson told Gizmodo via email it had warned the Federalist that it had three days to come into compliance with its ads policy or be booted from its network; they also said that Zerohedge was banned last week, before NBC had ever reached out. A CCHD spokesperson told Gizmodo via email that the Zerohedge ban predated their publication of the list, but that it was possible the site had been banned from Google Ads for its role in spreading conspiracy theories about the origin of the novel coronavirus.
The Google spokesperson also wrote that the sites had not been penalized for any content posted by authors. Instead, Google said both sides had comments sections that “consistently violated” its policy against “dangerous and derogatory” comments. (Both sites’ comment sections are known for largely unmoderated cesspools.)
“To be clear, the Federalist is not currently demonetized,” the spokesperson wrote. “We do have strict publisher policies that govern the content ads can run on, which includes comments on the site. This is a longstanding policy.”
The Federalist has advanced on numerous occasions claims that Silicon Valley tech companies are conspiring with liberals to censor them—a conspiracy theory popular with many on the right. GOP Senator Josh Hawley has advanced a bill that would strip internet companies of their Section 230 immunity from most liability for user-generated content on the basis of unfair discrimination against conservatives, while Donald Trump recently issued an executive order that would task the Federal Communications Commission with a similar mission.
This, of course, ignores that there is no evidence that companies like Google and Facebook routinely discriminate against the political right. Instead, there’s an abundance of evidence that conservatives actually have considerable clout on those sites and that those companies are particularly sensitive about angering them.
For the most part, the Federalist has played up the victimhood angle. It’s run article after article saying that the solution to this mythical anti-conservative bias is coercing internet companies to stop moderating entirely, as well as forcing them to run ads on conservative sites and for GOP politicians. This argument is usually constructed on the idea that these companies are making editorial decisions when they intervene in the content flow at all and thus they are not a platform with Section 230 immunity. This isn’t how it works at all—Section 230 applies to all operators handling user-generated content, including everything from editorial publications with comments sections to message boards like Reddit—but for argument’s sake, here is a sample passage of a typical Federalist take:
... Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other tech giants with massive social media platforms obviously have an editorial slant, much like the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN. Unlike those outlets, however, these tech firms have been able to hide behind the canard that they’re just providing a space for third parties to exchange ideas, so they can’t be held liable for what their users post.
No more. If Twitter wants to start fact-checking everything that gets posted by influential people, fine. But there’s no way it can do so in an even-handed or fair manner, and no way it can continue to insist on Section 230 protections.
Ben Domenech, one of the Federalist’s co-founders, has argued as much, writing in a piece earlier this year that Twitter “clearly wants all the powers and privileges of being a major news publisher, including shutting down opinions according to its own priorities, but with none of the costs or responsibilities.” Fellow co-founder Sean Davis tweeted that the NBC piece was an “attempted assassination,” as well as denounced “Google’s threats to demonetize and deplatform our news organization.”
According to Google, what actually happened is that the Federalist took down its comments section in cooperation with Google.
As TechDirt’s Mike Masnick points out, this isn’t evidence of anti-conservative bias; it’s evidence that Google has a bad comments policy that holds other companies responsible for third-party content on an arbitrary basis. Not only is that in apparent conflict with Google’s own reliance on the intermediary liability protections that makes the web possible, it creates opportunities for bad faith campaigns to demonetize websites. TechDirt ran into a similar issue with AdSense last year, though there’s clear distinctions. TechDirt’s comment section is nowhere near the garbage fire the Federalist’s was, and Masnick declined to take down the comments in question.
The Federalist faced potential financial repercussions by going against Google’s policies, so it decided to “censor” every person who has ever commented on its website. It doesn’t have to do that. There are other ad networks out there. It famously may have deep-pocketed conservative backers that it refuses to disclose.
But it decided to go the coward’s route—caving to Google while simultaneously pretending it was standing up to “threats to demonetize and deplatform our news organization” by staging a political stunt over the fate of racist comments. The Federalist wants it both ways; it wants the right to conduct its business whatever way it wants (with a largely unmoderated, racist comments section) while simultaneously demanding Google does business the way the Federalist wants (running ads next to those largely unmoderated, racist comments).
Then it turns out it’s decided to just do business the way Google wants. Davis apparently claimed on a Tuesday evening appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show that the deletion of the comments section is only temporary, but it would presumably have to come back under terms amenable to Google.
People should be mad at Google. They should just be mad that Google is so fucking big it can dictate terms and bully websites into complying with them with the threat of big financial hits. They should be mad these policies are arbitrary, don’t reflect the same principles Google’s own business rely on, and provide cover for Google to run ads on horrible content right up until someone notices it’s in violation of those same policies. But that doesn’t mean anyone needs to feel bad for the Federalist.