A recent report released by a media watchdog sheds light on the controversial practices of Google’s search algorithm in Turkey, including a disturbing trend of favouring pro-government media, allowing manipulative SEO practices, and skewing the representation of independent media in Turkey.
The report, which delves into the complex workings of Google’s algorithm, raises serious concerns about media bias, manipulation, and the undermining of democratic values.
Limited visibility for independent media
The study shows that Google’s algorithm in Turkey provides limited visibility to the country’s independent media, almost exclusively highlighting pro-government media. This practice contrasts sharply with Google’s algorithmic preferences in countries like the United States, where respected media outlets and local publishers are given more prominence.
Manipulation of SEO practices
The report also uncovers evidence of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) manipulation by some media outlets close to the government. These outlets are reportedly engaging in “keyword stuffing” to rank higher in search results. While Google usually removes such content in other countries, it seems to be ignoring these manipulations in Turkey, potentially harming the media ecosystem.
Financial activities and support
Concerns about Google’s financial activities in Turkey’s media landscape are also raised in the report. The selection of certain media groups for specific programs is seen as possibly skewing the representation further, leading to questions about Google’s responsibility in supporting independent media and ensuring underrepresented voices are heard.
Impact on access to information
The skewing of Google’s algorithm in Turkey has significant implications for the right to access accurate information. The prominence given to certain media outlets and the overlooking of manipulative SEO practices can mislead users and obstruct the right to information.
With an internet penetration rate of 82% at the beginning of 2022, most internet users in Turkey rely on Google for information gathering. The skewing of the algorithm thus has a direct impact on what information is accessed by the public.
In an extensive analysis conducted by Journo in May, just before the elections, evidence has been unveiled of algorithmic bias by Google in Turkey, particularly favouring pro-Erdoğan media. The investigation, led by Emre Kızılkaya, editor of the non-profit journalism website, revealed that Google’s algorithms favoured pro-Erdoğan publishers over independent ones by a margin of 81 to 19.
The data, gathered over seven months leading up to the crucial Turkish elections, encompassed over 500,000 news-related search results. The findings also pointed to a significant lack of diversity in Google’s recommended news sources in Turkey, with 13 news sites accounting for almost half of all recommendations.
Furthermore, Google’s recommendation system amplified disinformation content targeting the opposition leader, potentially exposing millions of users to fake news.
While the revelations about Google’s algorithmic practices in the country raise urgent questions about transparency, accountability and the role of technology in supporting independent media, the search engine giant has yet to respond to the findings of the report. However, Google had responded to the May 2023 analysis of Journo, stating it did not have a special algorithm for Turkey.