Facebook and Google join the battle against fake news

Image: The Public Domain Review - Flickr
Alex Stockwell

The giants step up to the plate and now their own credibility is at stake

In an age of uncertainty, the term ‘fake news’ has now become part of our collective consciousness. With, according to Statista, over 80% of Americans now having a social media profile and largely one preferred search engine, Google, consumers are now constantly bombarded by different interpretations of stories, with far reaching results.

Some even argue that the outcome of last year’s election may have been influenced by the proliferation of such widespread false and misleading information. So, what are the key players at the core of the controversy doing to address this apparent imbalance? And, can they bring a sense of order to our muddied worldview?

Fake it ’til you make it

If you had to think of a two-word phrase that popped up the most in the last six or more months of current affairs coverage, you’d probably have to go with ‘fake news’.

The term repeatedly surfaced during the presidential election, as patently made-up stories may muscled their way front and center of a rapidly-evolving, deadline-dominated, and sometimes hysterical news agenda. That much is fact.

Now the dust has settled a little, this has given rise to a general conversation about ‘fake news’, as the problem is emblematic of opinions of the media as a whole. Social media have come under fire the most due to the low levels of entry, lack of regulation, and the problem that the algorithms used to make content relevant to you can also create a narrow world view that becomes the users’ reality.

We want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

Last year, steps were made to combat the spread of fake news when researchers at Indiana University developed a search engine called Hoaxy. This worked by collecting information to show how fake news and unverified stories spread throughout social media, forming casework for continued study.

In conversation with Reuters, Filippo Menczer, the director of the University’s Centre for Complex networks and Systems Research that launched Hoaxy says, “It is a very serious problem…Social media makes it more likely that I am more exposed to false information that I am likely to believe.”

But what is being done to tackle the issue by those at the very center of the controversy?

Fact checking from Facebook and Google

Facebook recently outlined their plan to help combat false information in their social network, and it seems that they have a fairly broad strategy that focuses down on three main areas.

Firstly, they will attempt to reduce the financial incentives that may motivate fake news outlets to spread their nonsense, and, secondly, will also develop “new products” to help with the problem. What these products actually are is still a bit of a mystery, but currently include an all-new tool that sits at the top of your news feed highlighting sources and offering tips to help avoid fake news.

Lastly, Facebook want to go down the route of educating people in order to make a more informed decision when it comes to encountering new sources, including tips on spotting suspect URLs, or simply looking for other reports on the topic.

Vague. But a step in the right direction

Google, on the other hand, have taken a rather different approach with their announcement of Fact Check. This new product aims to verify the accuracy of certain reports using outsourced companies to help with the task.

Posts and articles will now appear with a ‘Fact Check’ tag in order to identify information that has been verified by news publishers and fact checking organizations, in an attempt to improve accountability and transparency.

Unlike Facebook, Google can penalize anyone not adhering to their set of standards and policies, but only time will tell if this approach becomes yet more ammunition for those looking to blame others for their subjective injustices.

Facebook could, of course, refuse those ad buys which kickstart these poisonous posts in the first place…

So there we have it, the big players are stepping up to the plate to offer some clarity in this strange new era of ‘alternative facts’. However, the internet is the natural playground for the ingenious and the innovative, so it would be naive to think that these steps alone will be enough to staunch the bleeding.

How they incorporate these steps in to a clear and effective strategy (rather than a mere tactic to temporarily silence their critics) will be the acid test.

In fact, it will test their own credibility to the limits.

Image: The Public Domain Review

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