Tech giants step up fight against fake news

Checking the checkers: Google will only display fact checks which pass its five-step test.

Google and Facebook have announced new techniques to help users spot misleading news stories. Meanwhile Germany plans to fine firms which spread fake news. Which approach will work better?

“Google accused of spreading fake news.” “Facebook’s fake news crisis deepens.” “Investigate Facebook and Google, publishers demand.”

These are some of the recent headlines that the internet’s two behemoths have faced. Since Donald Trump’s election in November concern has grown about misleading, selective or outright false news stories. Much of the blame has been pointed at the online giants who host them.

Now they want to redress the balance. On Friday Google said it would display fact-checking labels in its search results, to show vetting it considers reliable. The company said the checks would help people “make more informed judgements” about the information they read.

And on Thursday Facebook published a tool to help readers spot fake news. Users will see warnings about it and links to tips on spotting it above their feeds. Facebook also said it would employ fact checkers to monitor news.

But the German government has an another idea. Last week the cabinet wrote a draft bill which would compel social media firms to remove fake news within 24 hours or face fines of up to €50m.

Heiko Maas, Germany’s justice minister, said social media providers “are responsible when their platforms are misused to spread illegal false news”. Fake stories are spreading in Germany as September’s general election approaches, Maas added that he would press for a similar law across the EU.

The spread of fake news, particularly for political purposes, is not new. The Roman emperor Octavian launched a campaign of misinformation against his adversary Mark Antony. Black propaganda was common during the second world war.

But in the digital age it has become easier to distribute false information, build large audiences and avoid the law. Fake news has proved lucrative for some. Social media filter bubbles, which encourage users to read news they already agree with, may have helped to promote outlandish stories.

The tech companies are accused of abetting fake news. Now they say they want to deal with it. Is that enough?

Little lies

Yes, say their defenders. Google and Facebook’s sensible measures show they trust their users. Free speech means helping people to educate themselves, not telling them what to think. We should answer bad information with good information, not bans or fines. A government clampdown sets a dangerous precedent for anyone wishing to avoid criticism.

How foolish, opponents respond. Fake news needs a hard-headed response from those elected to serve our interests, not patronising platitudes from companies seeking to cover their own backs. The tech giants — and their often dubious algorithms — have proven themselves part of the problem. They cannot be trusted.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever fallen for a fake news story on social media?
  2. Will tech companies be more effective than governments against fake news?

Activities

  1. Work in pairs. Each write a story about something that happened last night. Swap and read your partner’s story. List five things you could do to work out whether it is true.
  2. Find and read three news stories from varied sources. Give each a rating on a scale from 0–10 to show how much you believe it. Write a paragraph explaining each decision and bring your work to class for discussion.

Some People Say...

“People can usually tell when they are being lied to.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
False or exaggerated stories have been used for centuries to seize power or turn people against each other. But information, whether true or not, spreads quickly and widely in the digital age. The term “fake news” has only been commonly used in recent months. It tends to benefit fringe politicians.
What do we not know?
The impact fake news has on politics, and whether fact checks will change much.
What do people believe?
Over 60% of Americans use social networks as a source of news. But much of the audience for fake news may itself be fake, and one study found that each fake news story would have needed to have the impact of 36 TV adverts to change the US election outcome. Readers will need to engage critically with fact checks if they are to have the desired impact.

Word Watch

Concern
Google analytics data showed a spike in queries about fake news after last year’s presidential election. During the campaign several fake stories went viral, usually to Trump’s benefit. Many are believed to have come from Russia, where Vladimir Putin celebrated Trump’s win.
Reliable
Google will not conduct fact-checks; it will assess whether checks by those who post stories are adequate.
Election
Many fake news stories aim to discredit Angela Merkel’s decision to allow large numbers of migrants to enter Germany. This may benefit fringe candidates such as the far-right AfD party.
Black propaganda
Information claiming to come from one side, but really from the other. Often spread by official-seeming newspapers or radio stations pretending to represent people they did not.
Lucrative
Sensationalist stories often attract large audiences and thus a lot of advertising revenue.
Filter bubbles
When people click on stories reflecting their opinions, then an algorithm suggests more stories which reinforce them, and their suggestions become more removed from those of people who disagree.