Don’t See Evil

Google’s boycott campaign against war photography and alternative media

by Dan Sanchez


What happens when a dynamic company, started by a couple of idealistic friends in grad school, succeeds so wildly that it becomes a mega-corporation that pervades the lives of hundreds of millions? In imperial America, it would seem, it eventually becomes corrupted, even captured. Tragically, that seems to be the unfolding story of Google.

By being the first dot-com to really get the search engine right, Google unlocked the nascent power of the internet, greatly liberating the individual. It is easy to take for granted and forget how revolutionary the advent of “Just Google it” was for the life of the mind. Suddenly, specific, useful knowledge could be had on most any topic in seconds with just a quick flurry of fingers on a keyboard.

This was a tremendous boost for alternative voices on the internet. It made it extremely easy to bypass the establishment gatekeepers of ideas and information. For example, I remember in the mid-2000s using Google to satisfy my curiosity about this “libertarianism” thing I had heard about, since the newspapers and magazines I was reading were quite useless for this purpose. In 2007, by then an avid libertarian, I remember walking through the campus of my former school UC Berkeley, seeing “Google Ron Paul” written in chalk on the ground, and rejoicing to think that hundreds of Cal students were doing just that. A big part of why today’s anti-war movement is more than a handful of Code Pink types, and the libertarian movement is more than a handful of zine subscribers, is that millions “Googled Ron Paul.”


Google and the Security State

In its early years, Google, ensconced in Silicon Valley, seemed to blissfully ignore Washington, D.C. It didn’t have a single lobbyist until 2003. Partly out of the necessity of defending itself against government threats, it gradually became ever more entangled with the Feds. By 2012, as The Washington Post reported, it had become the country’s second-largest corporate spender on lobbying.

And now, as Julian Assange of Wikileaks details, Google has become incredibly intimate with the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the US intelligence community. As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, Google employees have visited the Obama White House to meet with senior officials on average about once a week.

As Assange also discusses, Google has become a major defense and intelligence contractor. And a recently leaked series of friendly emails between Google executives (including Eric Schmidt) and the NSA (including Director Gen. Keith Alexander) indicates that Google’s allegedly “unwilling” participation in the government’s mass surveillance program (revealed by Edward Snowden) may not have been so unwilling after all.

In one email, Gen. Alexander referred to Google as “a key member of the Defense Industrial Base”: security state newspeak for the Military Industrial Complex.

In 2013, Google even went so far as to enlist in the Obama Administration’s campaign to drum up public support for an air war against Syria. As Assange wrote:

“On September 10, Google lent its front page — the most popular on the internet — to the war effort, inserting a line below the search box reading “Live! Secretary Kerry answers questions on Syria. Today via Hangout at 2pm E.T.”

Kerry used the massive platform provided by Google to further spread the since-debunked claim that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against the US-backed rebels. “Don’t be evil… unless you’re helping to lie the country into war.”

As it turns out, the national security state has been involved with Google from the very beginning: even in those fabled grad school days when Google was nothing but a research project, as investigative reporter Nafeez Ahmed has shown. Founder Sergey Brin’s work at Stanford University on what would later become Google received funding and even oversight from the CIA and the Pentagon through a program created to seed and incubate technology research that could later prove useful for information warfare.

Now, as discussed below, Google may even be actively taking part in that information warfare, especially the branch known as “perception management,” and in addition to its participation in mass surveillance.

How the CIA made Google
How the United States intelligence community funded, nurtured and incubated Google as part of a drive to dominate the world through control of information. medium.com

Originally the ultimate enemy of gatekeepers, Google now seems on the verge of itself becoming the greatest gatekeeper of them all. Most foreboding in this regard is the recent revelation that Google is working to make “trustworthiness” a major new factor in its search results. How will anti-government and anti-establishment perspectives fare once Google takes on the mantle of arbiter of truth?

Google’s dominance of the online ad market is one source of its potential gatekeeping power. If a web site running its ads contains content that Google or its friends in the government find objectionable, it can simply pull its ads unless and until the content is removed: as long as it comes up with an excuse convincing enough to keep it from looking bad.


Google Vs. Antiwar.com

This may be what Google is doing right now to Antiwar.com, a long-running and popular daily news and commentary site that is strongly critical of US foreign policy.

On the morning of March 18, Eric Garris, founder and webmaster of the site, received a form email from Google AdSense informing him that all of Antiwar.com’s Google ads had been disabled. The reason given was that one of the site’s pages with ads on it displayed images that violated AdSense’s policy against “violent or disturbing content, including sites with gory text or images.”

Of course the images in question were not “snuff,” or anything intended for titillation whatsoever. They were the famous images of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib US military prison in Iraq. Those images are important public information, especially for Americans. They are the previously secret documentation of horrific state violence inflicted in our name and funded by our tax dollars.

They are also eminently newsworthy because they show the government wantonly generating insecurity for the American public. Such abuse fuels anti-American and anti-western rage that can culminate in acts of terrorism. For example, it did just that in the case of Chérif Kouachi, who took part in one of the Paris terror attacks of early this year after becoming radicalized by learning about the Abu Ghraib abuses.

Indeed many apologists for such abuse fully acknowledge this blowback effect, since they expressly cite it as the main reason for blocking the release of abuse photos. Of course they ignore the fact that this danger they acknowledge is an excellent reason not to commit such abuses in the first place. And they are naïve if they really think word wouldn’t get out about such abuses among Iraqis and Muslims in general even without the photos. The dissemination of such photos chiefly serves to ultimately make terrorist attacks less likely by driving a disgusted American public to demand an end to such terrorism-inducing abuses.

The newsworthy nature of the photos made no difference to Google; or it made altogether the wrong kind of difference. Either way, they were considered non-compliant, and so Antiwar.com’s AdSense account, along with its revenue, were suspended immediately.

This struck Garris as odd. In all his years administering web sites, he had previously run into content policy issues with AdSense around half a dozen times. Each time, Google had not immediately disabled the ads, but instead gave the customer 72-hours to fix the violation. In fact, he had never heard of AdSense suspending an account without warning until this incident. Why the suddenly draconian response this time? Also, the Abu Ghraib page had been public for 11 years. Why the sudden concern about it only now?

In so many ways, this action struck Garris as radically unfair and quite possibly politically motivated. So he took to the Antiwar.com blog and wrote post raising hell about it. You can’t survive a decades-long career in anti-war activism (including an ongoing legal battle with the FBI over that agency monitoring Antiwar.com without cause) without developing a pugnacious streak. He remarked that the timing of the out-of-the-blue enforcement was highly suspect: coinciding as it did with the US gearing up for a re-invasion of Iraq, which will surely be accompanied by yet another wave of ugly violence and abuse.

The next morning, Gawker picked up the story. Garris told me that within 10 minutes of the sympathetic Gawker post appearing, he was contacted via email by someone from Google’s Public Relations department.

The PR guy struck a conciliatory, even apologetic note:

“Hi Eric,
Our media team noticed your blog post and informed me regarding the issue you raise in your post.
I am very sorry that you had this experience, as we should have warned you before blacklisting the site, which we didn’t. Our warning would have mentioned simply removing our AdSense code from the Abu Ghraib page, which would allow you to continue earning money on the other pages of your site that were not in violation of any AdSense policies. At this point, please remove the ad code from this page and we can reinstate ad serving throughout your site. Once complete, please file a site appeal, and our team will review ASAP. Further, revenue earned to this point, and after reinstatement will not be affected.
Google does need to be very careful with this sort of thing, since we have to make sure that our ads do not appear on pages that violate any of our policies. There are surprising instances of bad actors out there, and even otherwise trustworthy publishers can end up being the victim of bad traffic. At the same time, though, partners like you deserve a better customer service experience even when there are problems. Your post has sparked conversation here — you have been heard.
Please feel free to reach out again if need be. While I can’t solve everything, I’m happy to hear from great partners like you directly.
Best, [Redacted]”

As instructed, Garris removed the code and submitted an appeal that very day. After such a friendly email from the PR guy, he hoped to see the ads restored the next morning. The following day, not only were the ads still gone, but there was yet another message from AdSense in his inbox, informing him that his appeal was rejected because yet another non-compliant page was found: this one a report on the war in Ukraine that included an image of dead rebel fighters. (Contrary to various reports, Antiwar.com’s ads were never even briefly restored.) It read:

“Thank you for submitting an appeal. However, after thoroughly reviewing antiwar.com and taking your feedback into consideration, we are unable to enable ad serving to your site again at this time, as your site appears to still be in violation.
Example page where violation occurred: http://original.antiwar.com/chris_ernesto/2014/05/28/heads-up-the-us-is-losing-in-ukraine/ (…)
Please take some time to review your site again for compliance. When making changes, please note that the URL mentioned in your policy notification may be just one example and that similar violations may exist on other pages of your website. Appropriate changes must be made across your entire website before ad serving can be enabled on your site again.”

The PR guy’s message had basically been, “Sorry we didn’t give you fair warning! Just fix this one page, and we’ll have you back up in a jiffy!” The subsequent message from AdSense seemed to swap Officer Friendly with (aside from the obligatory “please and thank you”) a cross between the Colonel Klink and the Soup Nazi: “Until you scour every single page for total compliance, no ads for you!”

After receiving this scolding from the AdSense bad cop, Garris reached out again to the PR good cop, expressing his bafflement over Google’s new stringency.

Even if he could get the site “up to code,” what are the standards for future content? Are all casualties out? Only deaths, or grievous injuries too? How grievous? What if the body isn’t shown but only a blood streak? What about violence against property? A child crying beside the rubble of his home?

Are ads to only appear next to pictures of the comfortable and well-groomed elites who start wars and never the bloodied and bedraggled plebs who suffer them? If that’s the case, Antiwar.com would have so few ads as to hardly make it worthwhile.

Otherwise, what concrete instructions could he give his reporters, columnists, and bloggers? If none are possible, must Garris spend much of his time from now on playing “whack-a-mole” as new “violations” keep popping up? Will the site’s desperately-needed ad revenue suddenly dry up each time?

To help the PR guy understand his predicament, he shared with him a quandary he was dealing with at that very moment as he was preparing the front page for the next day. There had just been a wave of terror attacks in Yemen, and there was an aftermath photo of blood-splattered rescuers moving a victim in a makeshift stretcher. But you couldn’t actually see the victim. Would this be a violation? The PR guy couldn’t answer yes or no. He said it depended on the context, and that:

“A good rule of thumb is if it would be okay for a child in any region of the world to see that image, it’s acceptable.”

This response was astounding to Garris on many levels. First of all “it’s for the children” is the standard excuse for censorship. Are all the millions of web sites that host Google’s ads now operating under the content standards of PBS Kids or Disney Jr?

And what is “any region of the world” supposed to mean? If you can’t judge based on the violence and suffering portrayed alone, what is the decisive “context”? Is it the identity of the victims and of the victimizers? Is the goal not to offend the parents of children in allied countries? Is it okay if the Yemeni had been suicide-bombed by an ISIS affiliate, but not if he had been aerial-bombed by the Saudis? Would the prisoner abuse photos have been okay if they were from the time that Abu Ghraib was Saddam Hussein’s torture dungeon instead of America’s? Would the Ukrainian corpses have been okay had they been the victims of the eastern rebels, instead of the US-backed government in Kiev?

Also, if, as the PR guy conceded, it was a mistake that the account was immediately suspended after the Abu Ghraib photos were flagged, why did they make the same “mistake” the very next day by keeping the account suspended after discovering the Ukraine photo?

Having had enough of being jerked around, Garris wrote in an update:

“Antiwar.com has no intention of allowing Google to dictate our content. We are looking into alternate sources of advertising and will not likely be working with Google AdSense in the future.”

Whitewashing War with Blackouts

Now nobody is suggesting that Google should be forced to change its policy. Of course it has every right to refuse service to anyone for any reason. The issue is whether Google’s actions are shameful and corrupt, not whether they should be illegal.

War journalism and anti-war activism cannot be effectively pursued without war photography. This is true because such imagery conveys vital public information, and because one of the most effective ways of turning people against war is to vividly show them its horrors. Furthermore, independent web sites that cover war with small budgets and large traffic depend on ad revenue. So Google pulling ads on all of the AdSense customers who publish war photography amounts to a massive, debilitating boycott of independent online war journalism and anti-war activism.

Of course the war party in America would love nothing more. War photography is the bane of all war makers. Images like the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a naked Vietnamese child fleeing a napalm attack played a major role in turning American public opinion against the Vietnam War and against war in general. Frustrated warmongers likened the subsequent anti-war public sentiment to a mental disorder, calling it the “Vietnam Syndrome”.

By the time of the Gulf War, America’s first major war since Vietnam, the Federal government, having learned its lesson, was ready to tightly regulate the war imagery that reached the American public, both through Pentagon policy and through its sway over the media. As a result, the typical visuals of the Gulf War were constant CNN video loops of crosshairs-view “precision strikes” and night-time bombardments of Baghdad that looked like an Atari video game or a 4th of July fireworks show. What was not televised was the carnage wreaked on the ground by those blips on the screen. It wasn’t deemed fit to print either. After photographer Kenneth Jarecke captured a gruesome shot of an Iraqi soldier who was burned alive while trying to escape over the dashboard of his truck, he could not find a single major outlet who would run the picture.

After this sanitized coverage helped ensure the Gulf War’s popularity, President George H.W. Bush exulted in a speech, “And by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!”

The US has also carefully regulated the imagery of the post-9/11 wars, especially through its embedded media program that lures journalists with access given in exchange for submission to censorship. Until 2009, the US even banned photographs of the flag-draped coffins holding the bodies of Americans being returned home for burial.

In spite of such measures, they could not stop all of the horrors of war from reaching the public through unembedded journalists and through leaks. Yet the biggest reality gut punch was delivered by images that depicted, not just the maiming of the bodies of foreign victims, but also the mutilation of American souls. America saw its sons and daughters grinning for the camera while torturing and sexually humiliating Iraqis. It saw its young men urinating on corpses and holding a dead Afghani’s head up for the camera as though they were posing for a trophy picture with a prize buck.

Now, the war party is terrified that images such as these, combined with the abject failure of the wars, will give America an anti-interventionist “Iraq War Syndrome.” If leaks of such images can’t be stopped, at least their propagation must be slowed down.

Their problem is that media blackouts, like the one that occurred with the Gulf War torched corpse photo, have relatively little effect in an era in which anyone can post war photos to their blog and watch it go viral through social media. That is where a ubiquitous ad provider like Google can be of great service, by limiting the appearance of war photography on the millions of sites that depend on its ads.

Is that what Google is starting to do now? It is a troubling coincidence that Google’s sudden interest in the old Abu Ghraib photos happens to coincide with a Federal judge’s ruling that the government must release the remaining Abu Ghraib photos still under wraps. Will Google give the new wave of photos the same treatment they are giving the old ones, thereby suppressing the sensation it will cause? Has Google in practice changed its motto from “Don’t Be Evil” to “Don’t See Evil?”


Alt-Delete

After all, it isn’t just Antiwar.com that Google has leaned on. I have been informed that The American Conservative reluctantly decided to disable AdSense on all its article pages after Google objected to one of those troops-urinating-on-corpses photographs appearing in its article on the scandal. And anti-war activist Mnar Muhawesh had to blur an Abu Ghraib photo and remove a Syrian Civil War photo on her Mint Press News site after she received similar objections from Google.

And the troubling incidents go beyond web site ads. Google’s YouTube recently targeted Luke Rudkowski’s anti-regime alternative media project WeAreChange by, without notice, disabling ads on most of its YouTube videos and clearly suppressing their rate of appearance for users. This almost completely demonetized his account and obliterated his business model. After Rudkowski filed a complaint, Google gave absolutely no reason for demonetizing any but two of the videos. Those two, which covered the subject of ISIS, contain absolutely no gore, and yet were still deemed “not appropriate for advertising at this time” due to the “sensitive nature” of their content. Again, it must be asked of Google: exactly whose sensitivities are being protected here? And Google even preemptively disabled ads for James Corbett’s anti-imperialist Corbett Report YouTube channel even though Corbett has never even used them.

“GooTube” also took down Ben Swann’s documentary short film “Origin of ISIS”, which features Antiwar.com’s Angela Keaton, and which attributes the rise of the terror group to US intervention in Iraq and Syria and the direct funding of US regional allies. It has since been restored, but to reach its page on YouTube, one must first get past a page that advises “viewer discretion” because the video is “potentially offensive or graphic.” Swann’s video also contains no gore, yet still apparently did not pass the “any child in any region of the world” test. Wouldn’t want to scandalize any generous Qatari sheiks with kids, after all.


No Results for “US War Atrocity.” Did You Mean “US War Awesomeness”?

All this raises many questions.

If Google is already so heavy-handed against “inappropriate” voices and “sensitive content,” what can we expect from the government-connected search giant once its “trustworthiness” program is up and running, especially under the new “Net Neutrality” regulatory regime over the internet recently initiated by the FCC? A state-crony, semi-private internet Ministry of Truth? A return to the atmosphere of exclusively regime-friendly voices that characterized the era of crony print and broadcast media?

How true is the following assessment from Newsweek’s editorial preface for Assange’s telling of his meeting with Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt?

“They outlined radically opposing perspectives: for Assange, the liberating power of the Internet is based on its freedom and statelessness. For Schmidt, emancipation is at one with U.S. foreign policy objectives…”

And how has that identification between the two influenced his decisions and guidance concerning company projects and policies? How does Google’s cozy relationship with the national security state and its “key” membership in the Military Industrial Complex affect its approach toward internet content: particularly content that may clash with US foreign policy objectives?

Finally, if Google is bent on boycotting independent, alternative media, shouldn’t independent-minded individuals seriously consider boycotting them right back?

Given Google’s record, these questions are more than fair; they are pressing. And as may become the case for many other discomfiting and subversive questions in the future, their answers cannot be found by “just Googling it.”


Also published at Antiwar.com, Unz.com, and DanSanchez.me. Discussed by the author on The Scott Horton Show. Follow Dan Sanchez via Twitter, Facebook, or TinyLetter.