Facebook and Google are finally taking more steps against fake news sites, but for people who have condemned the proliferation of fake news on these platforms, the actions by the two companies may not be enough to combat the onslaught of misinformation-peddling sites.
On Wednesday, Google published a report that they had permanently banned 200 publishers from their AdSense network for misrepresenting content to readers and posing as news organizations. For many of these websites, Google’s ad service was one of the sources that helped them generate lucrative revenues. According to the report, Google’s actions against fake news websites was an implementation of the AdSense misrepresentative content policy that the company had passed last November.
The move by Google to curtail the revenues of fake news sites was greeted by a degree of skepticism from other media sites. The New York Times points out that Google’s ban of 200 publishers might not seem that grand a move when you consider nearly 2 million publishers use Google’s AdSense. And according to Variety, Google has other problems that it still has to grapple with, including a search algorithm that has in the past highlighted fake news, the most famous example being the misrepresentation of the outcome of the popular vote in 2016’s presidential election, which appeared in Google’s top search results last November.
— Google (@Google) January 25, 2017
One of the problems Google faces in its attempts to curb the spread of fake news is proving that the news on those websites are demonstrably fake. Most of these websites, the New York Times argues, rely on selective quoting that can be misleading to a reader but which are harder to disprove outright.
Facebook has tried to tackle this similar issue in the past by working with third-party fact-checking organizations to help them identify and flag down disputable news sources. Last December, Facebook announced that news that had been identified as fakes by organizations such as ABC News, AP, and the Washington Post Fact Checker would be flagged as “disputed” and would appear lower on people’s news feed.
Facebook has now ramped up its efforts to combat fake news. On January 25, the same day that Google published its report on its actions against misleading and inappropriate ads and websites, Facebook announced that it had made improvements to the “Trending” feature on their platform.
The new trending topics on Facebook will now have a publisher name featured under the headline. Another change that has occurred is that users of the same region will now see the same trending topics, instead of personalized topics curated based on their interests. One of the most important changes, however, may be the improvements Facebook has made to the system that helps it determine what topics are trending. According to Facebook, a topic will now be regarded as trending based on the number of publishers reporting on the same topic and the engagement surrounding those articles, whereas in the past, a topic would be identified as trending if a single article covering the topic received a high engagement rate on Facebook.
Like Google, Facebook has its critics. In a statement to the Huffington Post, MediaMatters President Angelo Carusone was unenthusiastic about Facebook’s moves to reduce the presence of fake news on its social media platform.
“Today’s announced policy changes are at best a marginal improvement. While moving in the right direction, these half-measures will not stop the rampant lies spreading on the platform.”
Interestingly, despite the fact that the issue of fake news has preoccupied much of the discussion surrounding media and journalism these days, a recent article by Vox has pointed out that the effect of fake news may not be as determinative as we think, especially in the case of the role fake news played in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Matthew Gentzkow, a professor of economics at Stanford University, has pointed out in his interview with Vox that fake news is actually not what concerns him the most and that the attention that is being paid to fake news may be disproportionate.
“I think fake news is not the main thing we should be worried about. I think the broader issue of people curating what they see or what people see being curated for them is the far bigger concern…Fake news is the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger set of highly partisan stories that people were exposed to during the election.”
[Featured Image by Ethan Miller/Getty Images]