My day started reading about how Google was reportedly censoring anti-Barack Obama blogs by shutting them down on Google-owned Blogger. I quickly did some debunking in a comment on our Sphinn site — but still, Google probably needs to do more to ensure its Blogger spam reporting tools aren’t being abused — especially given how it says these "can’t be manipulated by angry mobs." Right now, it looks like they can.
NewsBusters has the best write-up of the charges I’ve seen, covering how a number of anti-Obama blogs received emails recently from Google saying they were unable to publish until after an investigation had been done to see if they were spam blogs. One of the emails sent said:
Dear Blogger user,
This is a message from the Blogger team.
Your blog, at http://comealongway.blogspot.com/, has been identified as a potential spam blog. You will not be able to publish posts to your blog until we review your site and confirm that it is not a spam blog.
The Blogger Team
Note that the message doesn’t say anything like "You’re anti-Obama — so you’re banned." So those claiming Google censorship on that issue have some nice catchy headlines but no smoking gun.
Still, it is unusual that seven different sites on the anti-Obama topic apparently were frozen, blogs that are apparently part of the Just Say No Deal coalition. I thought — as Newsbusters does — that the more likely culprit would be pro-Obama people misusing the spam reporting tool at Blogger.
You’ll see this tool at the top of Blogger-hosted blogs such as this one. There’s a "Flag Blog" button that, if you click on it, turns red and sends a notice to Google.
This leads to Google’s help pages about it. They say:
The Flag button isn’t censorship and it can’t be manipulated by angry mobs. Political dissent? Incendiary opinions? Just plain crazy? Bring it on.
Well, unless Google is indeed censoring itself, it does look like that button has been manipulated. Real conspiracy people might even think the blogs themselves used it to get themselves banned and attract attention, though I think that’s pretty far fetched. But certainly it seems someone has.
And the search connection? As Nathania Johnson at Search Engine Watch notes, Google encourages public reporting of web spam. If they’re getting it wrong on Blogger, why wouldn’t they get it wrong in web search?
In part, Google has more signals to help keep it straight on the web search side — a quality site with a good history getting a sudden influx of reports, that wouldn’t seem right. Plus, you’ve got different teams looking into different spam reports. Just because Blogger’s spam tool might be messed up doesn’t mean the web search tools are. But still, a valid point to raise.
Postscript: Statement from Google now in:
We think blog spam is a serious problem and we have spam detection software to try to eliminate it. In this case, it appears that our anti-spam filters caused some Blogger accounts to be blocked from creating new posts. While we are still investigating, we believe this may have been caused by mass spam e-mails mentioning the “Just Say No Deal” network of blogs, which in turn caused our system to classify the blog addresses mentioned in the e-mails as spam. We have restored posting rights to the affected blogs, and it is very important to us that Blogger remain a tool for political debate and free expression.
Interesting. This means it wasn’t the flag tool to blame but instead likely that Gmail’s spam detection feature that kicked in and caused it.
Postscript 2: I asked for more info on how the email detection works [based solely on Gmail monitoring? Reports from other providers?], but Google simply responded, “We prefer not to go into too much detail so as to maintain the integrity of our spam-fighting efforts, but suffice to say that our anti-spam filters incorporate signals from a variety of sources.” Also, the New York Times has a story up now here and more coverage via Techmeme here.