By now you’re familiar with the problem of fake news. Some sites, claiming to provide news actually work with an agenda to present stories that spread their point of view, regardless of any connection with the facts.
The issue of fake news or what used to be known as political propaganda, came to the forefront during the presidential campaign in 2016, when it appears that the Russian government was working to help create and spread fake news in an effort to derail the campaign of Hillary Clinton.
Such efforts are continuing in Europe during current elections in Germany and France and again the Russian government is suspected to be backing those efforts. But fake news isn’t just the purview of the Russians. A number of right-wing and “alt-right” groups are also hard at work doing the same thing.
The purveyors of fake news often used the Facebook social network as a vector, but those false stories are picked up by Google where their appearance in search results gives them greater credence. Google will continue to pick up misleading Facebook articles until its new search ranking protocol takes effect.
Google announced the measures it intends to take to reduce the spread of fake news in a blog entry titled, “Our latest quality improvements for Search,” posted by Ben Gomes, engineering vice president.
Gomes explained how Google has long worked to prevent attempts to game the news search ranking system and has worked to keep search results as authoritative and accurate as possible. “There are new ways that people try to game the system,” Gomes said in his blog entry. “The most high profile of these issues is the phenomenon of ‘fake news,’ where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information.”
To fight the fake news problem, Google is asking for feedback from users. The new feedback tools work in Google’s autocomplete feature, which is when the search engine tries to anticipate what you’re going to ask and makes it part of the suggestions while you’re typing. In some cases, Google will show the most likely result and offer you a chance to provide feedback.
The second means of seeking feedback is though Google’s Featured Snippets. Those show up during a search session where Google will try to offer the most authoritative answer while it’s in the process of finding your answer.
You will see a feedback link in tiny print and if you click on it, you can provide feedback as to whether the source was accurate, used vulgar or hateful speech, is harmful or dangerous and whether you considered it harmful, dangerous or violent.
Of course Google isn’t going to take your word for it. What happens when you provide such feedback is that its engineers keep track of responses and use the preponderance of the input to schedule a review. In a few cases where something is a clear and present danger, Google may accelerate the review.
In his blog entry, Gomes explains how Google tries to limit sexually explicit or abusive autocomplete entries, hate predictions and dangerous actions. Also useful, Gomes includes a link to “How Search Works” article.
However what’s most useful about Google’s new search policy is that the company is employing humans to look at problematic results and judge whether they should included in Google’s results or not. Presumably, if they find content that full of hate, lies or blatantly inciting violence, then they will exclude it from search results.
The obvious question is whether Google will effectively kill fake news this way. As Gomes points out in his blog entry, people are always trying to game the system and it’s likely that fake news sites and the hate mongers will use Google’s new ranking system to find better ways of getting their search results placed higher.
Even at this early stage it’s easy to try out Google’s new effort in a small way. Do a search for “Why is the sky blue?” and just below the little graphic you’ll see a tiny link that says “feedback.” Click that and you’ll get to provide your input into whether the result was useful.
Unfortunately, maintaining that the sky is blue will probably not be seen as controversial and it’s unlikely to result in hate speech. Searches for other topics don’t necessarily provide the same opportunity for feedback.
For example, search for “Did the Holocaust really happen,” and you get Wikipedia entries on Holocaust deniers, and you get a prominent result that takes you to an organization called Stormfront, which is related to the Ku Klux Klan and claims the Holocaust didn’t happen.
While the Stormfront site isn’t exactly fake news (fake history is more accurate), it’s filled with misleading information, phony references and unsubstantiated claims. However, there currently is no opportunity in the search results to tell Google that this is fake news or that it’s misleading or anything else.
The challenge for Google is both scale and focus. Google gets what Gomes says are billions of requests daily and while less than one percent are questionable, that’s still a lot of searches. Will Google be able to find its way through the sure mass of potential problems? And how will Google decide which questionable items are serious enough to require some action?
In one sense, Google is to be admired for trying to fight fake news, but on the other hand one wonders if it will be able to keep up the fight given the sheer volume of content and web publishers’ ability to find new ways to game the system.