When was the last time you read a title like, ‘Pedophile priest with HIV who raped 30 children, found crucified outside church’. I bet it wasn’t too long back. This title sounds tempting, especially because it’s obnoxious and inglorious. We’ve all had that experience of coming across shared news stories with hyperbolic headlines while scrolling through our social media feeds. Some of us would click and read the accompanying article in disbelief, while others would just immediately share it around without verifying the source.
Though critical readers would spend a few minutes of Google-directed due diligence to reveal a story’s veracity, by then, it may be too late — the story may have already gone viral and received millions of page views.
The truth: The above story was published by a conspiracy site known for false accounts. The church says it has no record of the priest by that name or such an incident at the archdiocese.
In this article, I’d like to talk about two instances where fake news did not just eat away people’s time spent online web-browsing, but caused economic outrage. And then move on to discussing how Google plans on tackling this.
Terms such as “fake news”, “post-truth” and “alternative facts” will be forever associated with the 2016 Presidential Election. There are three reasons why Fake News is harmful:
- It promotes false facts, which in turn affects people’s opinions negatively.
- It overshadows more important, pressing and true stories that must reach people.
- It demeans the credibility of press and media as a whole. (Almost 50% people rarely or do not believe what they read on social media)
1. Malaysia Airline Flight 17 Attack
On July 17th 2014 at about 4:20 PM local time, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. All 298 passengers died, including many children. Who fired the missile?
A Dutch-led international team of investigators said Thursday that a missile that downed a Malaysia Airlines jetliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014 came from the Russian military, opening the possibility that Dutch prosecutors could sue the Kremlin in connection with the attack that killed all 298 on board. Even the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta seemed to have little doubt as to who was responsible. “Forgive us, Netherlands,” was the stark headline on the paper’s front page.
However, the Russian media was quick to spread misinformation about Ukraine, calling them guilty. Within hours, social media began to circulate rival explanations of what brought the plane down. Western media outlets claimed pro-Russian separatists shot it down. The Russian government, on the other hand, blamed the Ukrainian military. This article talks about the analysis conducted by The Washington Post on Tweets following the attack.
2. Myanmar Genocide
Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist (88–90% of the population), with small minorities of other faiths, including a small minority of Muslims (4%). The country underwent a major genocide that happened in 2016. In late November of 2016, Human Rights Watch released satellite images which showed that about 1,250 Rohingya houses in five villages had been burned down by the security forces (and an estimated ~90,000 have been displaced). Why? Fake News, if you haven’t guessed by now. In this incident, the main medium used was Facebook.
One said Islam was a global threat to Buddhism. Another shared a false story about the rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man. The Facebook posts were not from everyday internet users though. Instead, they were from Myanmar military personnel who turned the social network into a tool for ethnic cleansing, according to former military officials, researchers and civilian officials in the country.
The military exploited Facebook’s wide reach in Myanmar, where it is so broadly used that many of the country’s 18 million internet users confuse the Silicon Valley social media platform with the internet. Facebook did finally do something about this, but by then the many accounts had done the damage. Some of the fake accounts even had 1.3 million followers.
How Google Combats Fake News
As a Search Engine that processes over 3.5 billion searches per day, Google has understood the grave responsibility that it carries in weeding out fake news, especially during breaking news situations. In the digital age, news organizations face pressure more than ever to make themselves trustworthy.
Google said it plans to spend $300 million over the next three years to improve the accuracy and quality of news appearing on its platforms. They call it the Google News Initiative.
The GNI is focused on three objectives:
- Elevate and strengthen quality journalism
- Evolve business models to drive sustainable growth
- Empower news organizations through technological innovation
Those sound too vague — let me break it down. They plan on:
1. Elevate and strengthen quality journalism: Similar to how they remove hateful content on YouTube, Google plans on using that technology to highlight relevant content from verified news sources, called ‘Top Shelf’. To do that, they launched Disinfo Lab.
“By linking software engineers, designers and (dis)information experts, we believe we can develop modern and smart solutions to this age-old problem. Our first project has been to create an online ‘social network’ of disinformation specialists. A ‘Disinfo Hub’. The hub links academics and disinfo experts together with designers and software developers, creating a global forum for people interested in this subject.”
2. Evolve business models to drive sustainable growth: As digital media took over, it has been observed that people are more prone to paying for good quality content, which gives news organizations a second source of revenue apart from advertisements. Google is playing its part by creating a new initiative called ‘Subscribe with Google’, a way for people to easily subscribe to various news outlets, helping publishers engage readers across Google and the web.
Currently, they are in the early stages of testing a “Propensity to Subscribe” signal based on machine learning models in DoubleClick to make it easier for publishers to recognize potential subscribers, and to present them the right offer at the right time.
3. Empower news organizations through technological innovation: What good is technology advancement if it can’t be utilized to fight the real issues of today? Google followed this mantra and is trying to use their technology to make newsrooms more efficient.
For example, they are using their natural language processing API to help Hearst Newspapers sort, label and categorize more than 3,000 articles every day. They also worked with the South China Morning Post to use Google Earth to create immersive VR experiences that show the evolution of Hong Kong throughout history. But that’s not it — there’s more.
Finally, we’re also launching today Outline, an open-source tool from Jigsaw that lets news organizations provide journalists more secure access to the internet. Outline makes it easy for news organizations to set up their own VPN on a private server — no tech savvy required.
What Can We As Citizens Do?
Here is an article by the Harvard Summer School that gives you 4 tips to spot Fake News. To summarize,
- Vet the publisher’s credibility
- Pay attention to quality (CAPS & punctuation like ?!?!? are a big no-no)
- Check the sources
- Most importantly, use a fact-checking website like FaceCheck.org.
There are 3.773 billion internet users and 2.789 billion social media users all over the world. The global internet user number is reported to be up by more than 80% since year 2012, and there is an increase in social media use of 21% users year-on-year. But all this comes with a bitter pill: Fake News. If major tech companies don’t start combating this right away, it is safe to say I will be skeptical about every article that I read in the future.
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