Gabriel Weinberg, the CEO and founder of DuckDuckGo, took to Twitter to debunk claims that the search engine was going to purge independent media from search results. Weinberg said a news story’s headline was misleading and “completely made up,” taking a statement he said about Russia out of context. DuckDuckGo is a search engine that focuses on providing privacy and encryption to its users.
Here’s what you need to know.
Weinberg Said the Headline from a NewsPunch Article Was ‘Completely Made Up’
A NewsPunch story written in March had a headline that claimed “DuckDuckGo Announces Purge of Independent Media — ‘Only MSM Allowed.'” The story went viral about a month later after it began to be shared on social media. Many people shared a post by one Twitter user, Chantal Gaultier, or even just shared a screenshot of the post.
Although the story is marked as “Fact checked,” Weinberg said the quote about him was completely made up and he never said he was purging independent media or would only allow MSM in search results.
The article includes some tweets from Weinberg, and none of those tweets say what the headline claims. In addition, parts of the article appear to be opinion-based, with the author writing statements like, “DuckDuckGo’s search results have gon to s**t.”
Weinberg replied to numerous people who were sharing a screenshot of the story, and wrote, “That headline is completely made up.”
The official DuckDuckGo Twitter account also replied to the tweet that went viral, writing, “This report is wrong, we are not ‘purging’ independent media, and this is easy to verify.”
To one person on Twitter, Weinberg wrote, “This isn’t true — I never announced that. Looks to be a completely made up headline. What independent media outlets do you see purged in search results when you search for them?”
Weinberg wrote that if you search for any independent media source on the search engine, you’ll see that it hasn’t been purged.
To another person he wrote, “Everything in the title is incorrect. What independent media outlets do you see purged in search results when you search for them?”
The author of the article on NewsPunch, Sean Adl-Tabatabai, was featured in an article by Evening Standard in 2017. Evening Standard noted that he was also the founder and editor of Your News Wire and a former MTV producer. Poynter reported that Your News Wire has been debunked 80 times, and PolitiFact gives that site a 69% “Pants on Fire” ranking. In 2017, FactCheck.org reported that News Punch was “the new site for Yournewswire.com, which has been a prolific poster of misinformation and conspiracy theories.”
The Rumor Started After DuckDuckGo Noted It Would Down-Rank Some Sites Associated with Russian Disinformation
The rumor started after Weinberg had announced on Twitter that DuckDuckGo was going to down-rank some sites associated with Russian disinformation. Those tweets were included in the NewsPunch article, along with a quote in the headline that Weinberg noted he did not say.
On March 9 he wrote, “Like so many others I am sickened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the gigantic humanitarian crisis it continues to create. #StandWithUkraine️ At DuckDuckGo, we’ve been rolling out search updates that down-rank sites associated with Russian disinformation.”
DuckDuckGo was also implementing news modules to help with rapidly changing search results.
He wrote in the same March Twitter thread, “In addition to down-ranking sites associated with disinformation, we also often place news modules and information boxes at the top of DuckDuckGo search results (where they are seen and clicked the most) to highlight quality information for rapidly unfolding topics… DuckDuckGo’s mission is to make simple privacy protection accessible to all. Privacy is a human right and transcends politics, which is why about 100 million people around the world use DuckDuckGo. (We don’t have an exact count since we don’t track people.)”
When Engadget reported on DuckDuckGo down-ranking Russian disinformation sites, DuckDuckGo provided an official statement in response, which reads:
The primary utility of a search engine is to provide access to accurate information. Disinformation sites that deliberately put out false information to intentionally mislead people directly cut against that utility. Current examples are Russian state-sponsored media sites like RT and Sputnik. It’s also important to note that down-ranking is different from censorship. We are simply using the fact that that these sites are engaging in active disinformation campaigns as a ranking signal that the content they produce is of lower quality, just like there are signals for spammy sites and other lower-quality content. In addition to this approach, for newsworthy topics we’re also continuing to highlight reputable news coverage and reliable ‘instant answers’ at the top of our search results where they are seen and clicked the most. We’re also in the process of thinking about other types of interventions.
He Said All Search Engines Must Rank Results, But Independent Media Are Not Being Purged
Weinberg shared on Twitter that all search engines must have a system for ranking search results, but no independent media sources are being purged or replaced with mainstream sources.
In reply to one person who claimed DuckDuckGo is “manipulating results,” he wrote: “Not sure what you mean — all search results have to be ranked. Do you have any particular examples you have issue with it that I can investigate?”
He shared a screenshot from DuckDuckGo’s homepage, which describes the search engine’s policies on privacy and filtering. His screenshot highlighted an answer to the question of whether DuckDuckGo is an unfiltered search engine.
The unfiltered explanation reads:
Unlike some other search engines, we don’t alter search results based on someone’s previous search history. In fact, since we don’t track our users we don’t have access to search histories at all! Those other search engines show you results based on a data profile about you and your online activity (including your search history), and so can be slanted towards what they think you will click on the most based on this profiling. This effect is commonly known as the search filter bubble, but using DuckDuckGo can help you escape it.
This does not mean our search results are generally ‘unfiltered’ because, for every search you make online, a search engine’s job is to filter millions of possible results down to a ranked order of just a handful. In other words, a search engine has to use algorithms programmed by people to determine what shows up first in the list of results, what shows up second, and so on. Otherwise, for every search you’d just get a completely random set of results, which of course wouldn’t be very useful.
DuckDuckGo Is Removing Pirate Sites & Paused Its Partnership with Russia’s Yandex Search Engine
On April 15, Engadget reported that DuckDuckGo was removing search results for major pirating websites. However, this is not at all related to the “purging independent media” rumor that Weinberg debunked.
DuckDuckGo isn’t listing major pirating sites like The Pirate Bay, 1337x, and Fmovies, Engadget shared. However, Weinberg disagreed with Engadget’s assertion that YouTube-dl had also been removed.
He wrote, “If you search for ‘YouTube-dl’ the official site is the first thing listed in the top instant answer and the official GitHub is the link below it. We’re assessing if anything more needs to be done.”
In addition, Protocol reported that DuckDuckGo was pausing its partnership with Russia’s Yandex search engine.
Katie McInnis, DuckDuckGo’s senior public policy manager for the U.S., told Protocol: “The index was used to provide traditional links — meaning, non-news links — on the search engine results page in Russia and Turkey.”
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