Apr 3, 2009

Google, the Mainstream News Media, Blogs and Cuba : What I thought was not so crazy after all

The news media has traditionally been considered the 4th power in any democratic republic. With so many newspapers facing closure however, Google, blogs and the social networks are moving in to drive the formation of public opinion. So much is known. What is less understood is what it means. How will having a search engine in charge of effectively determining the news people read impact public opinion, political decisions, world events and human rights?

It's historically self-evident that bias and prejudice can result in people being abused or killed so one would think that Google, which prides itself as being a 'force for the good', would be careful to avoid it. Yet is that possible? Can one really suppose that Google's engineers, or their search algorithms, are free of moral bias. Hardly. This would not perhaps be a problem if Google were not a near monopoly but if to be visible in the world one must be found on Google, then for some it can be a matter of life and death that Google be a force for the good.
As Congress deliberates US policy towards Cuba this week, the 7 events below have been reported by at least someone on Cuba:
ONE: Former political prisoner Antúnez (Jorge Luis Garcia Perez) and 4 other dissidents have been under a state of Siege by Cuban State Security for over a week and are not allowed to obtain the liquid nutrients they need to survive. See my posts on this issue here, here, here, and here.

TWO: ON March 30 Amnesty International attempted to alert the world to the life threatening situation Antúnez and the other dissidents are confronting as I write.

THREE: On March 29 Yoani Sanchez and about 10 others surprised the world when they staged an unexpected performance at Havana's Art Biennial. They did a parody of Fidel Castro and took a free speech swing at the totalitarian state. They were subsequently accused by Castro of counter tyrannical 'provocation'.

FOUR: Politically motivated arrests have been reported almost daily in the Cuban exile media (see Miscelaneas de Cuba.com). IN march 2009 alone 300 acts of political intimidation were reported by the dissident Cuban Human Rights Council.

FIVE: On March 27, 1000 former Cuban political prisoners, forced into exile, have announced they will meet to wake up the world about Castro's assault on Cubans' human rights for 50 years.

SIX: On March 29 Castro's regime and the US opened a US-Cuba art exhibit with works from New York's Chelsea.

SEVEN: The US Senate and the House of Representatives are deciding on whether to pass legislation to allow all US citizens to travel to Cuba (The Cuba Travel Act - S. 428), the lifting of other restrictions and even reconciliation with Castro (The Cuba Reconciliation Act (H.R. 188).
Of these Google and renowned US and international media powerhouses such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, and The BBC reported only on 2, that is, on events 6 and 7, but hardly or not at all on 1 to 5 even though people's lives are evidently and imminently in danger and news on this issue would or should certainly influence US and world opinion on the last 2 issues. Nor did financial considerations prevent these renowned papers from attending and reporting on an Art Fair in Havana. They has their journalists and camarographers right there. Yet not one took the 2 hour trip to see Antúnez and the 4 other dissidents under siege by Cuban State Security at the latter's home in Placetas.

So what is driving this prejudiced media coverage with respect to Cuba? Could it be that the mainstream news media is so financially stretched that it no longer has sufficient resources to cover Cuba? No. Well I really mean, Google doesn't think so. Granted that Google's reporting is constantly in flux, but that's not the case with the 'secret' search algorithms it implements to determine what is relevant and to what. Database programmers and any intelligent person will understand immediately that human decisions and biases and not some random or chance mechanisms determine what is found when searching a database and that Google is no exception.
Accordingly I attempted a few searches last night to get a ballpark idea of just how Google, the major newspapers and the blogs are informing the world about Cuba.
After all, we have US senators like Richard Lugar who without a blink are quite willing to toss out any considerations of conscience to satisfy what he believes the world believes should be the US policy towards Cuba. On Lugar's very recent letter to Obama the Washington Post reported:
"The nearly 50-year-old economic embargo against Cuba, Lugar (R-Ind.) said in a March 30 letter to Obama, puts the United States at odds with the views of the rest of Latin America, the European Union and the United Nations, and 'undermines our broader security and political interests in the Western Hemisphere'."
Upon performing a Google news search for 'Cuba' last night 2, not 7, big stories appeared on the first search page. Indeed, Google reported an astounding 517 news articles on 'Rep. Barbara Lee heading to Cuba to talk tourism and trade'. It sure looks like according to Google and the mainstream media the forthcoming vote in Congress is a done deal Americans get ready. We're back in Cuba just like the good old Batista days.

Granted, Google concurrently reported that there were supposedly 113 stories on how an unexpected performance by Yoani Sanchez and several others at the Cuban Art Biennial had sparked a 'Cuban free speech debate' (news story # 3 above). However, upon checking it out I discovered that this was a distortion. There were only 5 that were about that particular event. The others were unrelated as of last night.

So what did a Google news search on 'Cuba' reveal about what is happening to Antúnez and the 5 dissidents (story # 1 above). Of the major newspapers only the Miami Herald had published anything and they didn't even visit the site of the siege. The Herald's was the only story on Antúnez, that Google reported in the first 25 pages of a search for news on Cuba. Amnesty International's story on Antúnez didn't appear either when the Google news search term was 'Cuba'.

So I did a Google news search specifying the key words 'Antúnez Amnesty International' and this resulted in exactly 1 news article, but in German. Not relevant to Cuba says Google and what's left of the mainstream media.

So with the silence of the mainstream media on Cuba human rights issues we are left to what the blogs tell us but what does Google do in this case?

I challenge anyone to do a Google blog search (exclusively) using the keyword 'Cuba' to see how much you can find on human rights or morality, or on the first 5 Cuba stories of the week I reported above.

That's precisely what I did only to discover that nothing resembling morality, human rights or democracy (all fundamental human and US values) on Cuba can be found until the page 7 of Google's blog search results on that keyword ('Cuba'). Nothing on the 5 news stories listed above can be found on the first 25 pages Google blog search pages for 'Cuba'.

It was only on the 7th page of Google's blog search results that I first found something, a listing of a Diario de Las Américas' story arguing that travel to Cuba will not bring democracy. Then on page 8 there's Mark Masferrer's post: 'Uncommon Sense: Ban on Cuba travel puts US. on the right side'. Uncommon indeed, for in Google's Cuba it's again silence on morality and human rights until blog search results page 12 where I found "Brave souls from Cuba plan to meet", the story of 1000 former Cuban political prisoners, forced into exile, meeting to denounce the tyranny. Surely this would be something important for the world and Washington to know right now, right? Not really says Google and the bloggers it prioritizes.

Only on page 13 of the search results did I find a listing of a blog story on Castro accusing Yoani Sanchez and her friends of "provocation" at the Art Biennial (story #3 above). On page 15 Google once again cites Mark Masferrer Uncommon Sense, this time with a story arguing against a renowned pro-Castro author and blogger who contended that experiencing hunger has actually been good for Cubans. Makes Cubans resilient. (She should consider trying her own medicine for 50 years along with a $15 a monthly Cuban salary for anything else she may perhaps need. )

Then Google was silent again for 5 more search pages, that is, until page 20 of the search results on 'Cuba' where it finally listed a story Amnesty International's 3 day old alert to the world on the urgency and gravity of the situation Antúnez and the 5 dissidents under siege are facing (story #1) . How's that for obstruction of justice when it comes to Cuba human rights by the world's news/blog search almost monopoly!

I then continued until page 25 but found nothing else. That's what Google had on human rights, morality and democracy in its first 250 listings last night (10 listings for each of 25 search pages). Of 250 stories listed on a Google blog search for 'Cuba', only 6 (and beginning only on page 7) of the search results were about human rights, morality or democracy. That's approximately 2% of all listings on 'Cuba' in those first of 25 of 100 pages of search results. The other 98% of the blog stories listed were more or less about how Americans were packing their bags to return to the good old Batista days.
Arguably the reason I didn't find anything about Antúnez, human rights and the morality of lifting restrictions on Cuba, etc. is that no one is writing about it on the blogs. To test this hypothesis I did a search on Google blogs for 'Antúnez Placetas'. There were 15 pages of blogs covering it (150 listings!); however, practically all of them seemed to be written by Cubans opposed to tyranny, like me. Why weren't they listed in the first 25 pages of a Google blog search on 'Cuba'?

I then searched for 'Cuba morality' and couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that my post yesterday, "The Morality of Lifting Restrictions on Cuba: The China Question, The China Lesson", was ranked 2nd in relevance'. So what could this mean? Searching for this same post on Google ---> blogs, but using only using 'Cuba' as the search term it was not to be found in Google's first 25 blog search result pages on 'Cuba'. One would actually have to be interested in the human rights of Cubans to find it and use 2 keywords 'Cuba morality', not just 'Cuba', to discover it. Evidently Google presumes that those searchers interested in 'Cuba' alone are not, but that says more about Google's values then about its searchers for news or blogs about Cuba.

Connect the dots and what does one get: The most plausible conclusion is that the human rights of Cubans and morality are just not central issues when it comes to the general topic of 'Cuba', as far as Google is concerned. Otherwise how can one explain that those 15 pages of blogs on Antúnez and my own post on morality did not appear listed in those first 25 pages of Google's blog search results on 'Cuba'?

Google can kiss goodbye to its claim to be 'a force for the good' if something further happens to Antúnez or to Yoani Sanchez and the dissidents who took that free speech swing at Castro 5 days ago.

The problem continues. While the piece you are reading is very visible in Google blogs, one that I posted yesterday entitled "Return Guantanamo to Whom? has been blocked, that is, it's not listed under blogs either by dates or relevance. I have checked 5, 8 and 18 hours later using the keywords 'Guantanamo' or the whole title 'Return Guantanamo to Whom' and several other combinations but none yielded results on Google blogs, although one can find it on the web if one really tries.

Maybe Google should subscribe to my Atom feeds since it was reported there in seconds.

Google is a little more subtle than Castro's Granma, for it freely and conveniently publishes blogs on human rights violations in Cuba but then expertly hides them from view.

I obtained slightly better results with www.metacrawler.com/ but that searches the web and not just blogs. Not surprisingly it obtained its results from Google's database.

I just checked and 'Return Guantanamo to Whom' is finally visible on searching Google ==> blogs 'return guantanamo to whom', by date. The only problem is that I discovered it at 1:17 AM the next day, about 31 hours after posting it. Given that I had checked 18 hours after posting and it wasn't there, Google took 18 to 31 hours to list said blog post by date. This fact must be evaluated in the context that I had to report it in this blog post you are reading, which I know has a high visibility (at least up until now).

Why does Google (at least temporarily) block the visibility of blog posts that denounce human rights abuses in Cuba, while immediately posting those that promote it as a tourist destination, etc.?

Almost 2 and 1/2 hours after posting "Gesture from Castro: Hotel Internet Access Now Out of Bounds for Cubans" one still can't find it, sorting by date, using the keywords 'Cuba Internet' in Google ==>blogs.

Nor can one find Cubaencuentro's news report on which it was based if one searches, with those same keywords, by date, on Google==> News.

An almost duplicate post titled "Hotel Internet Access Now Out of Bounds for Cubans" in Invisible Cuba (my new blog) is also invisible in Google blogs if searched with the keywords 'Cuba Internet'.

What else could one have expected from Google when it comes to human rights violations?
Almost 36 hours after publishing "Cuban Police Beat Up 3 Women Attempting to Visit Dissident Antúnez (Video)" it cannot be found by the Google search engine or the others that depend on it. The world's most used search engine continues to subtly but systematically censor news coming from Cuban dissidents related to human rights violations. Meanwhile many newspapers are plagued by gaps in their Cuba coverage (e.g. live reporting on Antúnez) and, like Google, they adopt increasingly subjective editorial criteria. As far as coverage of Cuba is concerned Google and most of the news media have been reduced to the pursuit of clicks.
Updated below on May 13 at 3:15 PM FROM ARGENTINA
My post "Cuban Police Beat Up 3 Women Attempting to Visit Dissident Antúnez (Video)" is finally found in Google's search engine but only 4 hours after reporting Google's censorship in my previous update and in this blog; and 40 hours after originally posting it.

However it cannot be found if one searches by date using 'Cuba' or 'Cuba repression' as keywords. The Cuban tyranny was elected to the United Nations Human Rights council the same day as my post. That piece of news is of course is easily found on Google.

By blocking my post for 40 hours Google made it effectively invisible in blog searches by date. In addition, given a human rights bias that favors Castro and friends while hiding posts by Castro's opponents (exiles, etc.) it effectively makes it invisible in blog searches by 'relevance'.

Now Cubanos vs. Muchos, (in Spanish) posted on June 18, 2009, is thus far (3 days and 3 hours later) being blocked within Argentina by Google's search engine for blogs.

In addition, on June 18 Argentina extended my permit to reside here for only one more month, that is, until after parlamientary elections. Previously, they had been renewing it for 3 months at a time.

UPDATE JULY 22 - Argentina extended my residency permit on July 21.

Google has blocked my 2 latests posts in English and 1 Spanish from blog searches within Argentina.

Legitimacy Question Lingers for Honduras and Cuba
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