What Abraham Lincoln would have said if the Internet had existed in 1863.

What Abraham Lincoln would have said if the Internet had existed in 1863.

It’s a rather massive understatement to point out that “fake news” has been a growing problem over the last couple of years, so much so that it played a role in last year’s Presidential election, although how much of a role it had in the outcome is the subject of intense debate and study. Indeed, a week and a half ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote a Gorski-length essay, “Building Global Community“, a large part of which emphasized the importance of an informed community and how Facebook would try to slow the spread of fake news, hoaxes, and sensationalism. Meanwhile, Google has also taken action against fake ads and fake news, in part by banning publishers of fake news from its AdSense advertising service while Facebook also tweaked its Trending Topics feature and is consulting third-party news organizations, including Snopes.com, PolitiFact, The Associated Press, FactCheck.org, and ABC News, about popular stories. Many are complaining that social media and search engine giants like Facebook and Google aren’t doing nearly enough, however.

Whether these modest efforts have an effect on the flood of fake news remains to be seen, but fake news is nothing new. Those of us above a certain age remember the tabloids displayed in supermarket checkout lines, such as The Weekly World News (WWN), which claimed always to “publish the truth.” It mixed “strange but true” stories with stories that were obviously made up, such as stories about Bat Boy, described as a creature who is “half human and half bat” and who is pursued by government officials and scientists. Some of its stories appeared to be satirical. In any event, it was a mixture of some strange stories plus a lot of fake news that appeared to be intended mainly for entertainment purposes. There were, of course, other tabloids publishing a mix of real and fake news, but most weren’t as blatant about the fake news as the WWN. Also, the difference between 30 years ago and now is that there was no World Wide Web or social media. Tabloids like the WWN were in print, while today’s fake news is online and can be shared thousands—or even millions—of times on social media in a manner of hours. Thus, compared to the fake news of 20 years ago, today’s fake news has a reach that is orders of magnitude larger. Worse, it’s often hard to draw a line between satire, intentionally-biased reporting, and actual fake news, the latter of which is usually stories that are made up to make money or to promote an ideological cause.

The question of what to do about fake news was brought to the fore in the medical and skeptical blogosphere last week when Mike Adams’ Natural News was delisted from Google, leading to a typical Mike Adams overreaction to rally his followers to whatever it is that profits him the most, and a debate about (1) why he was delisted and (2) whether Google should delist fake news sites. Before I discuss the actual circumstances of the delisting and give you my thoughts on it, let’s take a look at a problem in medicine related to the fake news problem: Fake medicine sites, which is one of my new names for what I used to call just quack websites, of which Natural News is one of the biggest, quackiest, and fakest.

Fake medicine, or: Calling Dr. Google

A variant of the fake news problem is the proliferation of quack medical sites, which has produced a real problem in finding reliable medical information online for the average person without a medical background. It’s a problem that I sometimes refer to as “Dr. Google.” What does the average person do when he as symptoms or is diagnosed with a disease or condition? Obviously, patients naturally head straight to Google to searches for health information, their conditions, their doctors, and potential treatments. Unfortunately, what they find are often reputable websites mixed with quack websites; e.g., links to Mercola.com mixed with links to the NIH or CDC websites. That’s because Google’s PageRank algorithm for ranking its search results relies more on popularity as represented by the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. Basically, Google’s web crawlers find webpages and follow back all the incoming links and, using algorithms that are the blackest of blackest boxes, uses information on content, freshness, quantity and quality of incoming links, keywords, how long the web page has existed, and intangibles. Yes, I know that’s a simplified version of how Google works, and I don’t claim to be an expert. After all, there are people who make big bucks doing search engine optimization (SEO), which involves basically figuring out how Google ranks pages and then telling clients how to improve their page rankings. Meanwhile, Google views SEO as trying to game its system, which, to some extent, it is, but it’s a very understandable response to the power of Google and I for one can’t blame website operators for doing whatever they can to improve their rankings—as long as they’re not deceptive.

In any event, the proliferation of quack medical sites makes finding online medical information difficult, particularly for topics for which there is a lot of misinformation out there, such as vaccines, cancer, and diet. Indeed, it’s hard for me to believe that it’s been almost five years since the Science-Based Medicine crew did its workshop at The Amazing Meeting on Dr. Google and how to find reliable health information on the web. Indeed, much of the raison d’être of SBM is to provide what counterweight we can to the proliferation of quack and antivaccine websites by critically analyzing health stories and, in particular, refuting the misinformation spread by these sites. In the age of social media and fake news, our task seems to have become even more difficult. Bogus stories about quack cancer cures and “conspiracies” at the CDC run rampant, and at the heart of that proliferation is the subject of Google’s delisting.

Google “delists” Natural News

Regular readers at SBM are probably familiar with Mike Adams and his website Natural News. I’m going to be a bit blunt here (when am I ever not?) in my opinion, but I think Adams deserves it. Forget the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, when it comes to wretched hives of scum and quackery on the Internet, NaturalNews is the wretchedest, scummiest, and quackiest. Not surprisingly, Adams got his start (at least as far as I can tell from my reading) selling Y2K scams back in 1999. After Y2K came and went with minimal fuss, Adams moved on to found Arial Software, a company reportedly dedicated to, in essence, spam and helping spammers get around increasingly sophisticated spam blockers. He also founded NewsTarget.com, which later became Natural News, with NewsTarget.com remaining as an affiliated sister site. However, it is Natural News that has become the “jewel in the crown” of Mike Adams’ online empire, built up using what appear to be dubious marketing techniques. Its Wikipedia entry estimates that Natural News receives approximately 7 million unique visits a month, and a 2014 article noted that his number of Facebook likes approached those for The Los Angeles Times.

Unfortunately, NaturalNews is so big that in 2017 Adams presides over a “natural health” online publishing empire that racks in considerable green by publishing articles laced with quackery, antivaccine pseudoscience, character assassination, and thuggery, both legal and getting a bit too close to inciting violence, such as the time he published the “Monsanto collaborators list,” likening them to Nazi collaborators and all but calling for violence against them. Adams also fancies himself a scientist and a rapper and musician (the less said about his rapping and vocal stylings, the better, though). He’s even gone so far as to purchase a used mass spectrometer and use it to analyze everything from his competitors’ supplements to Flint water to the flu vaccine, resulting in pure hilarity (to real scientists) and, unsurprisingly, an interview with America’s Quack, Mehmet Oz, on The Dr. Oz Show and an instant quack bromance. Basically, if it’s quackery and pseudoscience, very likely Adams embraces it (and probably profits from selling it). More recently, Adams has become a die-hard Donald Trump supporter and a rising star in the alt-right.

So it was that when last week Adams suddenly announced that Natural News had been delisted by Google, I naturally wondered two things. First, was it true? (There’s a reason why Adams has been lumped together with a lot of fake news outlets, and I don’t trust a thing he says that I can’t verify independently.) Second, if he was penalized by Google, was it due to his promotion of fake news? The first question first, though. Yes, Adams was delisted by Google; this was verified by multiple independent outlets, first by Telapost (as far as I was able to tell):

Today someone asked me why they could not find a website in Google search. The website is “Natural News” (http://naturalnews.com/).

Indeed, the site has been penalized by Google. This means, for whatever reason, the site does not show up in Google organic search. I tested the subdomain blogs.naturalnews.com as well, and it too is penalized.

Len Raleigh goes on to note that he’s seen sites disappear for a day or two and come back, but as of right now he noted that Natural News is definitely missing from Google Search results. I myself also did some tests and found the same thing. At least as of my writing this, NaturalNews is:

If you are not active in the world of SEO you may call it blackballed, sandboxed, blacklisted, delisted, etc. It means your website has been removed from Google’s search results. Some penalties are algorithmic, others are manual, meaning a person at Google manually penalized the website for violating Google’s webmaster guidelines.

So we don’t know why NaturalNews was penalized by Google, nor do we know if this penalization is permanent, brief, or long term, but this is serious business:

As mentioned above, this could be a fluke. Or, maybe there are a tremendous amount of bad links pointing at them- I doubt that though- the site is 10yrs old.

I googled a recent post and it had been mentioned nearly 3,000 times in just days that I could tell, which means it has likely been cited significantly more than that. That is a tremendous amount of SEO value. From what I can tell, the site should be ranking very well. But, that said, there is only so much I can tell by just glancing around. I do not have access to what I would need to determine why the penalty occurred.

This must be fairly recent as SimilarWeb estimates that 31% of their 6,500,000 monthly hits are via organic search.

When I searched for Natural News on Google, I got back Adams’ Facebook page. I got a bunch of entries about NaturalNews, including RationalWiki’s and a couple posts by me here and at my not-so-super-secret other blog. I got a couple of domains owned by Adams and linked to Natural News, such as NewsTarget.com, Healthranger.com, and TruthWiki.org, all domains that do not appear to be affected. I saw his Natural.News domain, a small “shadow” domain relatively recently purchased by Adams. But I saw no direct links to Natural News. On Twitter I saw many reports that Google searches for NaturalNew.com turned up empty.

I will confess that my initial reaction to learning the news was pure schadenfreude. I make no apology for that. Adams has been publishing what I consider to be pseudoscience, quackery, conspiracy theories, and character assassination for at least a decade. To give you an idea of what sort of man he is, one of his favorite “go-to” moves involves celebrities who die of cancer after using conventional therapy, such when former White House Press Secretary under President George W. Bush Tony Snow died of metastatic colon cancer, when Farrah Fawcett died of anal cancer, Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer (apparently as payback for an interview Swayze gave before his death telling people to avoid quacks), and Steve Jobs, among many others. Basically, he blames chemotherapy, surgery, and other conventional therapy for having “killed,” them, and then, with an air of faux sorrow, laments how they could have lived if only they had embraced “natural healing.” Variations on this theme include, for instance, lamenting how Christina Applegate had been “maimed” unnecessarily when she underwent bilateral mastectomy for her breast cancer and to blame Beau Biden’s death from brain cancer on glyphosate and chemotherapy. Last year, he did the same thing after David Bowie died of liver cancer and Alan Rickman died of pancreatic cancer. Heck, just yesterday, Adams leapt at the death of actor Bill Paxton after his death due to complications from surgery. It’s unclear exactly what the circumstances of Paxton’s death were, but that didn’t stop Adams from blaming it on superbugs. (TMZ is now reporting that it was a stroke after cardiac surgery; take that for what you will.)

In any case, that’s how Adams rolls. Any celebrity who dies while undergoing conventional therapy is fodder for his claims that medicine “killed” him and that “natural therapy” would have saved him.

It would also be remiss of me if I didn’t also disclose, for the benefit of those who are not regular readers here, that I have personal experience of Adams’ penchant for smear campaigns. Beginning last April, Adams began a campaign of character assassination against me and, in order to cause trouble for me at work, my cancer center. What triggered it last year, I really don’t know. It’s not as though I hadn’t been consistently harshly critical of Adams for over a decade before he launched his campaign. Be that as it may, it’s a campaign that continues to this day and is up to over 40 posts. (Indeed, I’m actually quite proud that Adams listed me #4 on his Top 10 “Science Ass-Hat of the Year” Awards handed out to the shills, hucksters and liars of medicine and biotech, with only Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Richard Pan (the California state senator who introduced SB 277, the bill that eliminated nonmedical school vaccine exemptions in California), above me. That’s some mighty fine company to be in. I only ask Adams one thing: Do I get a trophy with this award?

Oh, well, there’s always next year.

I said that my first reaction was pure schadenfreude, and that’s true. However, as the days rolled by since the delisting, I became less gleeful and more contemplative. First, why was Natural News delisted? Was it because of fake news or something more prosaic? Then, what does this mean? What can we as skeptics and the companies behind search engines and social media platforms do to decrease the amount of fake news, quackery, and pseudoscience being passed around? The first question is fairly easy to answer; the second, not so much.

Mike Adams’ explanation for his delisting versus reality

Normal webmasters, when faced with a delisting or penalty from Google, generally immediately ask themselves: What’s wrong with my website that triggered a Google penalty? Is there some bad code? Malvertising that I let slip in there by accident? Google provides a list of the sorts of practices that can trigger a delisting, including:

Given Adams’ history as CEO of what has been described as a spam company and his mastery of black hat SEO, I could easily have imagined any number of these possibilities that might have tripped Adams up. Of course, Adams wouldn’t even consider the possibility that he had screwed up. Instead, he hopped immediately aboard the conspiracy train. Since his site was delisted on Wednesday, he’s published a string of articles, amplified by articles by his lackeys who churn out content that portrays Adams’ posts as news. To give you an idea, the first post by Adams on the topic appeared on Wednesday and was entitled “GOOGLE blacklists Natural News… removes 140,000 pages from its index… “memory holes” Natural News investigative articles on vaccines, pharma corruption, fraudulent science and more.” Here’s a taste:

Late last week, I received a direct threat that warned if I did not take steps to destroy Alex Jones and InfoWars, I would be targeted for destruction in a campaign of smears, censorship and defamation.

Instead of giving in to the enemy, I refused to take the bait and went public with details of the threat, warning everyone in the new media that sinister forces were now being pursued to undermine and silence every anti-establishment (and pro-Trump) voice on the internet.

True to form, today the entire Natural News website has been blacklisted by Google, entirely without warning.

As is his usual M.O., Adams linked the delisting of his flagship website to…well, everything conspiracy-related, including the fall of Milo Yiannopoulos and InfoWars being “blackballed” by AdRoll, thus cutting into Alex Jones’ profits. Then, of course, there were those evil liberals pummeling the Shopify e-commerce platform to dump the Breitbart online store, not to mention this:

Today, Natural News has been hit by Google, which has blacklisted the entire Natural News domain and removed over 140,000 pages from its index. The take down of Natural News happened this morning, and it follows a pattern of censorship we’re seeing being leveled against other pro-Trump websites. Google sent no warning whatsoever to our “webmaster tools” email address on file with them. The shut off of Natural News was clearly driven by a human decision, not an algorithm. We’re currently attempting to determine Google’s claimed justification for censoring our entire website, and we hope to have Natural News restored in Google’s index.

You get the idea. Here is a list of the posts that Adams and his drones have churned out in just five days, all with Archive.org links, so that I don’t link directly to Adams’ website and in case he changes the content. I’m not suggesting that you read all of them (or even any of them); that is, unless you want to and have a high tolerance for ranting and conspiracies. I’m just asking you to peruse the headlines:

  1. GOOGLE blacklists Natural News… removes 140,000 pages from its index… “memory holes” Natural News investigative articles on vaccines, pharma corruption, fraudulent science and more
  2. Breaking: Infowars and Natural News are under attack
  3. Internet gatekeepers trying to torch all truth across the ‘Net, targeting Natural News, InfoWars and more
  4. Beyond fake news… How Google just became FAKE SEARCH by blacklisting independent journalism
  5. Breaking: Mike Adams and Alex Jones Taken Down by Google / CIA Prior to Big Event: Trump Needs to Beware
  6. RED ALERT: Fascist Google begins PURGE of pro-Trump websites as prelude to massive false flag or coup attempt
  7. Public trust in Google COLLAPSING as millions of natural health readers discover the search engine is censoring Natural News
  8. White House petition launched to end Google’s outrageous and malicious censorship of independent journalism
  9. Google censorship transforming the Health Ranger into an almost “cultural hero” of the First Amendment
  10. With outrageous censoring of Natural News, Google now becomes the internet’s #1 BULLY and pusher of hate speech… #SaveNaturalNews
  11. Google now cites obscure ad code in old blog posts in a blogs subdomain as their reason for blacklisting the entire Natural News website… INSANE
  12. #SaveNaturalNews buttons, banners and petition released… join the movement to protect speech and defeat Google’s politically motivated censorship
  13. GOOGLE CENSORSHIP BOMBSHELL: Supposed Natural News “violation” of Google webmaster rules also found running on Google’s own Blogspot network!
  14. Whitehouse.gov petition to halt Google’s censorship of Natural News nearing 20,000 signatures as Americans line up to oppose the true face of fascism and oppression
  15. PROOF: After blacklisting Natural News, Google takes NO such action against HuffPo, BuzzFeed, Forbes and CNN for writers selling outbound links in violation of webmaster guidelines
  16. Why didn’t Google blacklist Gizmodo, BuzzFeed, Daily Kos and others for “outbound links” when Natural News was silenced for far less?
  17. After censoring nutritional supplement ads, Google goes all-in for Big Pharma by blacklisting the entire Natural News website
  18. #SaveNaturalNews White House petition blasts through 40,000 signatures as internet outrage against Google censorship explodes everywhere
  19. By blacklisting Natural News articles on holistic health and cancer prevention, Google proves it is a DANGER to all humanity
  20. The HARM of Google censorship: The day you (or a loved one) are diagnosed with cancer, you will desperately wish Google hadn’t censored Natural News
  21. BOMBSHELL investigation: Google an “information dominance” front for the CIA

That’s 21 posts over five days, and I’m sure there’ll be more by the time this post goes live. In any case, I had to stop after the last two, particularly the one where Adams is quite literally claiming that people will die as a result of the “censoring” of his website. I will, however, claim another prize:

…David Gorski, whom I have reported to the FBI for a long list of possible violations, collusion and crimes, is also key in the attacks against me. Gorski is a sociopath, a breast cancer surgeon, a friend of the “Amazing Randi” who solicits young boys for sex acts, and a genuine danger to society at every level. He’s one of the internet’s most prolific hate speech propagandists and he’s now been handed extraordinary power by Google to defame and smear Natural News (among other targets). (He’s also a highly ranked editor on Wikipedia, which is run by pro-pharma trolls and sinister propagandists.)

Mike Adams seems to view me this way. If only it were true.

Mike Adams seems to view me this way. If only it were true.

Sigh. I keep telling the cranks that I’m not an editor for Wikipedia, but they never believe me. I do, however, have to contemplate what I should do with this new awesome power of Google that Adams apparently thinks I now have. Oh, and ten months later I still haven’t been contacted by the FBI. I wonder why.

Basically, if you believe Adams, Google, being in cahoots with worldwide pharma cabal and shadowy conspiracy that opposes Donald Trump and using the excuse of going after “fake news” (which, to Adams, is real news while the mainstream media are the fake news), found a flimsy pretense of some rogue code running on one of the blogs on blog.naturalnews.com to shut him down even though lots of other websites supposedly do the same thing. But is that what happened? Remember, this is Mike Adams. I never believe a thing he says that I can’t independently verify. On the other hand, a lot of people having nothing to do with Adams have speculated that this might be the first volley in a war on fake news that Google is launching. I must admit, I wondered that myself at first. However, it turns out that that’s probably not the explanation either. Instead, let’s take a look at what some search experts say and what Google itself said.

No, Natural News wasn’t delisted because of “fake news.” Mike Adams broke the rules

A couple of bloggers, Len Raleigh at Telapost and Barry Schwartz over at Search Engine Roundtable, have been all over this. Len, not being familiar with Adams, strikes me as a bit credulous about Adams’ excuses, even going so far as to cite Adams’ article on dogs who can smell cancer as “interesting life saving news mainstream media does not cover that I would personally like to see more attention drawn to” and noting that “there is satire along with good information on the site in places as well.” Clearly, Len has not delved deeply into Adams’ site and is unaware of what a wretched hive of scum and quackery it is. In any case, thus far Len seems to be (mostly) taking Adams’ explanation at face value, which is always a dangerous thing to do, although wisely he does speculate over the possibility of manipulative links (more on that later).

Barry Schwartz notes that John Mueller from Google posted this in a Google webmaster help thread:

Hi! I work with the Google Search team. We’re seeing a bit of confusion & incorrect stories circulating about what’s happening here, so just to be super clear — Natural News is using a sneaky mobile redirect, which is prohibited by our webmaster guidelines (there’s a bit about this kind of issue at https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2015/10/detect-and-get-rid-of-unwanted-sneaky.html ). These redirects aren’t always easy to reproduce, they’re sometimes in widgets or served by ad networks, and can target specific devices, browsers, or user locations. When we last checked, there was one on http://blogs. naturalnews. com/bentonite-clay-a-natural-medicine-cabinet-must-have/ . As soon as this is cleaned up, the site can submit a reconsideration request through Search Console, and once that’s reviewed things will return to normal. No action has been taken based on the editorial content of this site.

So, assuming you believe a Google employee, nothing about Adams’ content got him banned. Rather, it was this:

Here are the facts in this case:
– Google has guidelines that website sare [sic] expected to follow if they want to be listed in the search engine
– one of those guidelines is this one: https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2015/10/detect-and-get-rid-of-unwanted-sneaky.html
– Natural News were violating those guidelines
– this means that when you searched for something using a mobile device on Google and Natural News came up in the search results, what was appearing in the search results was not what you got when you clicked on the link to Natural News
– this is a bad and negative experience for the searcher who does not get what they were expecting to get based on what the link in the search results said
– Google removed Natural News because of this (they do that to any site that does this – 1000’s of sites have been removed previously for this)
– Mike Adams knows this, but instead is milking it alleging conspiracies etc
– Mike Adams can fix this today and get relisted in google

Dustin Woodward over at Webconnoisseur has a much more detailed explanation, for those inclined to investigate. The tl;dr version is that NaturalNews set up a blogging platform that is poorly policed and allows writers to insert their own ads and code, including a lot of spammy code, with many users dropping in affiliate links, unnatural links, and completely off topic posts, as well as, yes, sneaky mobile redirects. He concludes:

The blacklisting is, in fact, due to the site’s own activities that violate Google’s guidelines. Another site doing the same things I highlighted would also be banned. Since it appears it was due to negligence or lack of SEO expertise on the part of Natural News side, I can understand why they were confused and upset, drawing their own incorrect conclusions. Natural News simply needs to clean their site up and request reconsideration. Hopefully my article helps them get back into the index.

Clearly Woodward doesn’t know Adams very well. He appears unaware of reports that Adams’s company’s original purpose was spam or reports describing how Adams is a master of “black hat” SEO tactics. My guess is that the free-for-all in the Natural News blogs is a feature, not a bug. Adams is anything but ignorant about SEO.

Oh, those “sneaky redirects”!

My own personal experience with Adams also suggests to me that there might be another issue as well that set Google off, although I have no way of knowing. Let me try to briefly explain. When Schwartz’s article mentioned “sneaky mobile redirects,” I immediately remembered something that is (I hope) relevant. A few years back on my not-so-super-secret other blog, I began noticing that when I linked directly to Natural News (this was before I knew better), readers would complain to me that the link didn’t go to the correct article. In fact, Adams seemed to be intentionally redirecting the link to his article published on my blog to an article in which he bragged about his “scientific accomplishments.” (Don’t laugh. Or do.) Copying the link from my blog, shutting down and restarting the browser, and then pasting it into a new window in a different browser would bring up the correct article, but directly clicking the link redirected to his own personal paean to himself. Mine wasn’t the only blog for which he did this, as I found out asking around.

Could these “sneaky redirects” that Adams did have anything to do with Adams’ delisting? I’m certainly not that SEO-savvy, but at least one of those redirects still seems to be there. I went back and looked at this post from 2009, which included a link to this post by Adams about Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson as “victims of pharma.” (I used the latest Archive.org link). However, if you go into the post and click directly on the link on the text “the latest celebrity victims of big pharma,” you might well find that what comes up is a post entitled “Top ten scientific achievements of Natural News and the Health Ranger (so far).” Both have the same URL, but that URL appears to pull up different material depending on where the link is coming from.

I could, of course, be wrong about this. Again, I’m not SEO savvy, nor am I a coder. Also, the redirects observed weren’t always consistent. Still, it would very much amuse me if part of the reason why Adams was penalized was his own ego that led him to prank readers of my not-so-super-secret other blog to redirect links to his own self-congratulatory post. The bottom line, though, is that there is no conspiracy to “silence” Adams, and, as far as experts have been able to tell, Google is not unfairly applying its rules to his website.

How do we combat Dr. Google Quack?

After my initial bout of schadenfreude over Adams’ delisting, I started thinking more about the issues that this incident highlights. First, it must be emphasized that, from what I’ve been able to tell, Google caught Adams breaking its rules. Whether the infraction was intentional or due to sloppiness is not possible to say given what I know, but given Adams’ history I can’t discount the likelihood that it was intentional. Whether the punishment fits the crime or not is also something open to reasonable debate, but as a private company Google can do whatever it deems appropriate to produce what it views as the most useful search results that it can. The real issue is whether Google or other search or social media companies should police speech and, if they should, how they should approach it. For instance, there were a lot of people who dislike Mike Adams almost as much I do who were disturbed by the ban. Most of them based their concerns on free speech issues, believing that Google’s banning of Natural News was the first volley in a war on “fake news.” Now that it’s been pretty well established that Adams was not banned for fake news, I suspect those concerns will decline.

Still, even I had to wonder. To be honest, as much as I despise Adams and his website, I’m not sure that Natural News truly qualifies as “fake news,” although sometimes it might. For one thing, unlike fake news sites, Adams rarely makes up stories out of whole cloth. Rather, I see him, like any good propagandist, taking existing news stories and information sources, cherry picking what he likes from them, and then weaving the bits of information together into a highly misleading, biased tale designed to rile up his readers by confirming their most fevered conspiracy theories, all while misrepresenting science and evidence to fuel his quackery-supporting narratives. That’s why I don’t really consider Natural News to be (exactly) a fake news site, but more like a whackaloon conspiracy theory and quackery website. I realize that that could be a distinction without a true difference. On the other hand, it’s a fine line between what Adams does and fake news; I’m not always sure where I’d draw it.

There’s no doubt that Adams’ website had serious Google juice, given all the citations, incoming links, and, these days above all, the social media shares, all coupled with a lot of traffic and reach. And that was a problem. His “fake medicine” and conspiracy theory articles were very widely shared on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, and Adams has been very SEO-, social media-, and web-savvy for a very long time. His ridiculous articles promoting ridiculous conspiracy theories (that is, when he wasn’t gloating over the deaths of celebrities who used conventional medicine to treat their cancer), had a wide reach and were not infrequently shared by people on Facebook who really should know better. Since he went all in for Donald Trump, his reach has only grown, as he has become a rising star in the alt right.

Like Steve Novella, I’m a bit conflicted about attempts to eliminate “fake news.” I agree that one can base one’s rationale for doing it on quality control, as Steve argues:

Natural News is an objectively low quality site from the perspective of the academic and scientific quality of the information it provides. If someone is searching for medical information, Google may determine that they will best serve their customers by providing legitimate medical information from trusted sources, rather than popular misinformation. They can also value academic sources over commercial sources.

But he also notes:

In general I favor legitimate attempts at quality control for information, and am not persuaded by arguments of censorship when the real goal is quality. But I also recognize then when you are dealing with a company and service as large as Google, you have to be especially careful that quality control does not slip into ideological bias. We have to then ask – what are the checks and balances?

I would also argue that the topic matters. Medicine, for instance, is a high value, high importance topic. Millions of people use Google every day to search for medical information that will influence how they seek medical care and which treatments they will choose. Adams was correct about one thing. Lives are literally on the line. He was just risibly incorrect about how they were on the line. Specifically, any person with a serious medical condition should stay as far away from any of Mike Adams’ sites as possible. Fake medicine, such as what Adams promotes, has the potential to kill.

For better or for worse, it’s a brave new world out there. Information is more easily available than it’s ever been, but unfortunately that means that low quality and false information is also more easily available than ever, often indistinguishable from reliable information. We as a society are in the early stages of figuring out solutions to this conundrum that don’t unduly impact freedom of speech. Unfortunately, Adams’ histrionic and transparent attempts to portray himself as a free speech martyr when in fact it looks almost certain that he violated Google’s rules cast a lot of heat but no light on the larger question of how we as a society will deal with fake news and quack websites. After all, as soon as Mike Adams has milked the delisting of Natural News for all the publicity and profit he can, presumably he’ll fix whatever Google found wrong and his site will be listed in Google searches again. What then?

Posted by David Gorski

Dr. Gorski's full information can be found here, along with information for patients. David H. Gorski, MD, PhD, FACS is a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute specializing in breast cancer surgery, where he also serves as the American College of Surgeons Committee on Cancer Liaison Physician as well as an Associate Professor of Surgery and member of the faculty of the Graduate Program in Cancer Biology at Wayne State University. If you are a potential patient and found this page through a Google search, please check out Dr. Gorski's biographical information, disclaimers regarding his writings, and notice to patients here.

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  1. […] David Gorski Last week, in a surprise move Google delisted Mike Adams’ Natural News website. Predictably, […]

  2. […] briefly delisted the pseudoscience/scam site Natural News, run by longtime con artist Mike Adams, for violating the search site’s rules, later relisting it after the site complied with Google’s demands. But that link also raises […]

  3. […] Adams’ website, as do most of the Wikipedia skeptics. So when Google delisted Natural News, Gorski crowed about “fake news” and how the responsible people were striking back, completely forgetting that he and the Guerilla skeptics have been going after Natural News since […]

  4. […] After selling Y2K scams back in 1999, Adams founded Arial Software which David Gorski says it used to be in the business of spamming and helping spammers. ThinkProgress reports Adams used […]

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