Editorial: Don't Let the Tech Giants Undermine AlterNet's Fight Against Trump

Independent journalism is more important than ever in the era of Trump.

Donald Trump. Adapted from Creative Commons images on Flickr by Gage Skidmore.
Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey/Flickr CC

This fall we shared the disconcerting story of how new threats to democracy were undermining independent, progressive media like AlterNet.

Many readers responded to our call to action, and we are so grateful for the support.

The painful reality is that it’s not just Donald Trump and the right wing wreaking mind-boggling destruction on our society. Google and Facebook, giant monopolies we all use every day, have also become a serious threat to journalism and democracy. This makes it more difficult to challenge Trump.

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In June, Google, under the guise of fighting fake news, and addressing the worries of corporate advertisers, implemented an algorithm change called Project Owl. It seemed like a good idea: Fighting fake news, often one of Trump's tools, is a top priority for us. 

But we and other progressive sites quickly discovered that Project Owl, while trying to eliminate fake news, hurt us by dramatically reducing the visibility of our content. We saw a sharp drop-off in traffic from Facebook as well.

How We Were Impacted

The new algorithm reduced our Google search traffic by more than 40 percent. The changes at Facebook also had a dramatic effect. Suddenly, 2 million fewer people were reading AlterNet stories every month, and millions more across the internet were not accessing progressive content.

We are suddenly faced with the reality that independent, progressive news sites have become inconvenient to the bottom line of the Google and Facebook duopoly.

The impact of Project Owl has been to invisibly censor independent news, while at the same time boost the standing of a group of mainstream print and broadcast outlets that have collaborated with these platforms to “solve” the fake-news crisis.

Take a look at our data below:

Independent Media Squeezed by the Tech Monopolies

AlterNet is currently receiving roughly 300,000 visits a week (1.2 million a month) from Google. At the beginning of 2017, AlterNet’s traffic had reached as many as 800,000 weekly visitors (3.3 million a month) from Google. The steep decline starting in early June coincided with Google’s announcement that it was changing its algorithm to reduce referral traffic from hate groups and notorious right-wing fake news operations.

In addition, Facebook is now sending an audience size to AlterNet only half of what it was in the first five months of the year; we were getting 2.3 million visitors a month through May, and it cratered to 1.2 million each month by the fall.

Overall, AlterNet’s monthly traffic has stabilized since August between 3 and 3.5 million unique visitors, but we are missing millions of visits a month that we had been getting for years. That’s a lot of people who are not being exposed to the counter-narrative against the corporate media and its enablers of the hard-right Trump agenda.

The Good News

Faced with this crisis, we appealed to you, our community. The response was fantastic, with financial contributions and support. As a result, we have stabilized our short-term advertising revenue for now.

Unfortunately, the larger duopoly information problem still exists. We must dedicate ourselves to a long-term fight. Other sites like Salon, Democracy Now, Media Matters and many more have had significant traffic drops. And it could get worse. 

The bottom line, as scholar Jonathan Taplin’s recent op-ed "Can the Tech Giants be Stopped?" makes quite clear, is that “Digital technology has become critical to the personal and economic well-being of everyone on the planet, but decisions about how it is designed, operated and developed have never been voted on by anyone… It is time for that to change.”

What We Are Doing About the Duopoly Problem

AlterNet feels that the long-term future of independent media is at risk. Progressive media is a crucial element in fighting back and stopping a total right-wing and corporate takeover. Tech giants have a firm grip over the information channels, and we must aggressively resist their attempts to marginalize our voices.

We all need to fight back. Working with the Media Consortium, in January 2018, we plan to bring together the independent media sector to better understand the issues and prepare to fight back.

  • We call on Google to rescind the algorithm changes made under Project Owl and instead consider adopting a more transparent method of determining what is fake news.
  • We call on the public, the FTC and Congress to consider regulating Facebook and Google as monopoly platforms for the distribution of content.

What About Trump and the Right Wing?

Despite the monopoly challenges, AlterNet is fiercely fighting the Trump agenda every day, 24/7. White supremacy, toxic masculinity, anti-science, anti-immigrant, anti-democracy—these are all essential elements of the Trump administration and the rabid right-wingers in Congress.

AlterNet still has one of the biggest audiences in progressive online media. We need your support to continue to provide all of our readers with the reporting and analysis necessary to fight back and make it through the crisis we face as a news organization, and as a democracy at large.

Can we count on you to help?

Warmly,

 

Don Hazen
Executive Editor, AlterNet

 

P.S.: If you'd like to make a donation to AlterNet, click here. Your contribution is 100% tax-deductible.


 

Don Hazen is the former executive editor of AlterNet.