In light of the recent mounting criticism over how fake news sites may have influenced the presidential election’s outcome, Google has agreed to fund a project to develop automated fact-finding tools.
A UK fact-checking organization, FullFact, has announced it has been awarded €50,000 (£43,000) by Google’s Digital News Initiative to build the first “fully automated end-to-end fact checking system.”
- One will inform readers if something reported as fact has already been proven to be wrong.
- The other mode will fact check claims automatically using Natural Language Processing and statistical analysis in real-time – something FullFact said has never been done before.
The project, which is also supported by two smaller UK tech companies Bytemark and Flax, aims to fight fake “news” sites disseminating false information – particularly about politically charged topics such as perceived crimes by refugees, immigration and the alleged crimes of politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
According to analysis by Buzzfeed News, fake election news got more attention than real stories on Facebook during the US presidential election.
It found that the 20 top-performing stories from hoax websites and partisan blogs generated 8.7 million shares, reactions and comments in the three months to polling day – compared to 7.4 million for conventional news outlets.
Facebook attempted to diffuse criticism saying it was a tech company not a media company and was not responsible for the information shared on its network.
But following the shock victory of Donald Trump last week, an unofficial task force of Facebook has reportedly been set up to examine the role it played in the spread of false information during the campaign.
After a report found Facebook’s News Feed feature was skewed in favour of left-wing news sources in August, the company fired some of its “trending news” editors but the algorithm which replaced them automatically began promoting false news shared by users.
Amid research which suggests about 60% of Americans get at least some, or all, of their news from social media, Facebook responded to the growing concerns over how its promotion of fake news could have influenced the election.
On Saturday, Facebook’s chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg claimed “more than 99% of what people see” on Facebook is authentic.
“Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated. While some hohoardsaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted.”
“A lot of people on both sides felt lied to during the referendum. What’s worse is that many people think it’s inevitable they will be lied to. Only about 1 in 5 of us generally trust politicians or journalists to tell the truth.
“We all need tools that help us choose when to trust and when not to trust claims we hear.
“Otherwise, it’s too easy just to switch off completely and be cynical about everything.”
Both internet giants Google and Facebook responded to the public outcry against fake news sites this week by instituting some changes in their policies targeting the revenue sources of fake news sites, which are supposed to be effective immediately.
Google started the fake news crackdown on Monday afternoon, announcing it will now prevent websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service. Hours later, Facebook updated the language in its Facebook Audience Network policy, which already states it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites.
Facebook announced the policy change in a public statement:
“We have updated the policy to explicitly clarify that this applies to fake news. Our team will continue to closely vet all prospective publishers and monitor existing ones to ensure compliance.”
Google recently announced a new policy of blocking fake news and hoax sites from its lucrative AdSense network, in an effort to cut off a significant source of revenue for them from displaying AdSense advertisements on their sites.
A Google spokeswoman said:
“Moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content or the primary purpose of the web property.”
As recently as on Monday, a fake story from the pro-Trump “70 News” website claiming that Donald Trump received 700,000 votes more than Hillary Clinton was given a prominent slot in Google rankings for the phrase “final election results”. Although Trump won the presidency after receiving the most Electoral College votes, the Republican is actually trailing Clinton in the popular vote as of this publication.
Google’s new policy of cracking down on the circulation of false and deceptive news, offering financial incentive to news sites pushing them to provide their readers with accurate information, could have a positive effect on improving the quality of public discourse among a better informed society, which is a vital necessity to a healthy and functional democracy.
The more cynical attitude, however, may criticize the heavy-handedness of such a powerful company in exerting too much influence over the shaping of public perception, expressing wariness and distrust towards such “fact prejudice” policies (fact according to whom? who is the governing authority?) as being blatant censorship and technocratic tyranny, a way to silence whistleblowers revealing government crimes, or independent analysis that challenges the official narrative.
Google’s Digital News Initiative has so far granted €24 million (£20.6m) to fund 124 projects across 25 European countries.
- Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites (New York Times, Nov. 14, 2016)
- Google funds automated fact-checking software in bid to fight fake news (The Independent, Nov. 17, 2016)