By: Jason Gee
In 2016, that question became a lot harder to discern, especially when it came to which news articles were authentic or fake. Traditionally, major news networks (e.g., NBC, ABC, CBS) and newspapers (e.g., The New York Times, The Washington Post) would be the leaders in news publishing, and most would agree that journalistic reporting was based on a common set of facts; that, regardless of bias or personal belief, there was an ostensible truth to get to the heart of a news story. Today, thanks to technology, people are likely to consume news by just searching for it.
However, the challenge in this so-called “post-truth age,” in a time when many with their own agendas and beliefs can twist the truth for their own benefit, is that reliable search engines increasingly reward search results based on how likely someone is to click on it. Thus, fake news, with incendiary headlines, outrageous but false claims, and promises of shocking material, can outrank accurate, truthful, and unbiased reports on higher quality websites such as the above sources.
Further complicating things is Google’s autocomplete feature, which predicts search queries as they’re being typed, and can easily lead searchers astray to fake news sites. For example, a fake news story claiming President Obama banned the pledge of allegiance and national anthem in schools, or a clearly false story claiming that Hilary Clinton was selling weapons to ISIS. If these fake sites are garnering high traffic, simply by typing in either politician’s name, could make Google’s autocomplete feature potentially offer the fake news option, and may lead a searcher right to them. And while these are examples involving liberal figureheads, fake news is a phenomenon that can just as easily involve conservative figureheads; overall, fake news is harmful and dishonest to the reader, regardless of politics.
In the example to the right, if a searcher clicked on the first listing, it would take the individual to a page that certainly looks like a CNN article page: it contains a headline, an image, a date of publication, and an author name. It even contains a CNN logo, although it is in black and white; the real one has a white font with a red background. There’s also banner advertising on the top and right. Fake news creators do their research, and put the work in to give their false sites a look and feel that is very similar to a legitimate news source. They’re banking on individuals not noticing the difference, and therefore reading the content as authentic. This series of events could raise unwarranted fear and anger among readers and confirm a person’s bias belief, skew their perception of what the truth is, or even motivate radical, dangerous actions based off of entirely false information.
In November 2016, Google announced it would be updating its policy relating to its Google AdSense system, which allows independent web publisher to display advertising on its network of sites. Google’s current policy does not allow the placement of misleading advertising and will extend it to include sites that misrepresent content. While this policy change does not address the issue of how fake news appears in search results, it will be interesting to see how effective this policy will be. Google did state that the new policy would be a combination of automated and human review to help determine which content is fake. Google will need to tread carefully, as they do not want to be accused of being biased.
Google and similar companies are just beginning to understand how to address this issue, which is unfortunately proliferated across all corners of the internet, and is a threat to the way people view and perceive the truth. For now, brands and agencies need to work with their media partners to ensure ads are not placed on sites that promote fake news. The reason brands need to be cautious is to not seem like they are offering implied support with placing banner ads on these fake news sites. And in many cases, some agencies and brands don’t even know that their product is being advertised on a fake news site. Which is where third party players come into the game; there are now dedicated resources and organizations whose mission is to make brands, agencies, and companies aware of their product or name being touted on a fake news site. One such group is Sleeping Giants, who is adamant about raising awareness of the alt-right (a re-branding of the ideals of neo-Nazism) fake news site Breitbart, and reaching out to those various peoples to let them know that their ads are appearing on that site. In many cases, these companies have pulled their ads, or severely limited their exposure, for concern of being associated with the fake news outlet. Going forward, companies, brands, and agencies will have to be just as adamant in their research for new partners, and make sure their name and product are not falling under a potentially harmful organization.