Did Activists Manipulate Google News Against The American Council on Science and Health?

The American Council on Science and Health, a pro-science consumer advocacy group, has been squarely in the sights of organizations like Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Greenpeace and more for decades. Supporting them in their war against (some) science are smaller fringe outlets like Sourcewatch and US Right To Know and 300 other organizations funded by organic corporations. 

So far, blips aside, the organization has survived just fine. A fired employee stole some internal fundraising documents in 2013 and Mother Jones published them, but the magazine called every donor on the list trying to get someone to confess they had any involvement and admitted they couldn't find any evidence that donors had any impact on its research. After the organization got national attention again in 2015 by asking Columbia University to remove Dr. Oz from their faculty due to his promotion of alternative medicine, the television doctor fired back that the organization employed an M.D. who had been convicted of a paperwork felony 25 years earlier, but outside his allies that looked like deflection. 

Recently ACSH.org announced that they had been temporarily removed from Google News, and that Google declined to say why. Ordinarily, Google will notify a media outlet if it is a technology issue (hacked by spam, strange structure GoogleBot couldn't decipher, misplaced content) but the lack of any notification at all, just removal, is rare for a prominent group. Since the announcement, speculation in the science community has been rampant: Has one of the anti-science groups opposed to scientists and doctors speaking directly to the public been able to game Google's algorithms and get them banned? A top Google insider sits on the Board at NRDC and donates millions annually, did they have something to do with it? In response to a request for a reason, Google just copied and pasted a link to their guidelines. They are pretty vague: 

News content covering recent events. ObviousOriginal content. ObviousAccountability and transparency. A site needs author biographies, contact information, phone numbersMisrepresentative site. If you are secretly writing student research papers or press releases, you can't pretend to be newsReadability. Obvious

If you are a regular reader of the site, as we are, you know that they check off all of those boxes. So there must be a hidden reason.

There is a way to exploit the system to bring down an opponent (italics that follow are ours): "Additionally, if you believe that another publisher is violating Google News inclusion guidelines, please let us know by filing a spam report. Google News prefers developing scalable and automated solutions to problems, so we attempt to minimize hand-to-hand spam fighting. While we may not take manual action in response to every report, spam reports are prioritized based on user impact, and in some cases may lead to complete removal of a spammy site from Google News results."

If you click the link on their site to do it, it doesn't require being another publisher, it only requires a Gmail account. That is a very low barrier to entry if someone wants to engage in misconduct.

While scientists and doctors never engage in that kind of black hat tactic, environmental activists do it all of the time. The firebombing of a lab in Italy because it was owned by Monsanto (but didn't even work on GMOs) is only exceptional because it was a literal physical attack. Environmentalists routinely attack farmers and scientists using their digital platforms all of the time. Their echo chamber and efforts at collusion have been well-documented, thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests, so it is possible they created an effort to get a site marked as spam, even though it is by expert Ph.D.s and physicians. 

Google would easily be able to see through it quickly, if it were obvious, like activists hired a company in Asia using cell phones and bogus gmail accounts to submit spam complaints, but with a devoted following united by a common cause against conventional agriculture, it is completely plausible that they succeeded by mobilizing an army and that Google has been tricked into being a puppet of these activists, the same way the Kremlin has been shown to be colluding with people like Gary Ruskin at US Right To Know.

So far no other science news sites have been affected. If this happens to someone else in the next month, the answer will be clear.