Google needs to do more to fight fake news, and it needs to do it now
With the 2016 US elections, the idea that social media is full of fake news finally seems to have been understood around the world. This is something many of us already know all too well; doctored images circulated on WhatsApp were used to incite violence in Bengaluru half a decade ago. But, as is usually the case, things tend to ramp up after the US is hit, and that’s why you started seeing a lot more fake news stories towards the end of 2016. But one of the companies that can make a really big difference – Google – doesn’t seem to be doing much about it.
Both Google and Facebook have decided to block fake news by restricting advertising, which is a very positive step, and Facebook has detailed measures to combat fake news. It has launched new tools to solve this problem. It’s a start, although there’s a long way to go before Facebook’s intervention can be called “meaningful.” As the world’s largest social network, it has the power to shape opinions and influence people – which is why companies advertise there after all – and it will have to take some responsibility for what people put in it. But the same must be true for Google now.
“Bad” search results have come up too often on Google, and the answer that it’s just the result of algorithms, that it’s just the result of what people say on the internet, isn’t really enough anymore. The company dreams of moonshots – an augmented reality world where you can seamlessly translate the real and the digital, where cars drive around while you do what you want to do. Solving the problem of fake news and producing truly reliable results must be at the top of the list. We all use Google all the time and trust it to provide us with the facts.
In India at least, WhatsApp is the liveliest conduit for fake news, and anyone can tell stories of ridiculous articles being shared on these groups. The prevailing mindset seems to be, “I got it from a friend and didn’t have time to read it, but it seemed important so I sent it.” This is what a WhatsApp user told Gadgets 360 after sharing a news article about nano-GPS chips in the new Rs. 2000 notes. This was shared a few days after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley confirmed that the note did not have such a chip.
This is a separate issue, and one that really needs to be fixed, but there’s yet another issue that needs to be fixed first – and it’s fake news found via Google.
News shared on Facebook or via WhatsApp is at least considered to be from a source. But when it’s the first search result, when it’s the suggested search, when it’s on the response card that Google generates after you type something in the search bar, there’s an air of unbiased authenticity to everything you see.
Facebook and WhatsApp are places of prejudice, but Google, well, Google can be trusted, right?
Except that’s not always true. Remember how last year Google results showed photos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when you searched for the top 10 criminals? Or when searching for anti-nationals brought you to JNU on Google Maps? Heck, even searching for “2000 rupee nano chip” currently leads to a few news sites debunking the idea, and a number of YouTube videos “reporting” on early rumours, treating them as if they were completely real.
You might think that it’s not Google’s fault, that it boils down to algorithms, and that the exact search results that show up for a query – for example Top 10 Criminals – are determined by a variety of factors, some of which have been well documented and others which Google prefers to keep secret in order to make it harder for people to game the system.
These factors include the text people use to link to a particular website or the information used to describe an image. While we trust Google to return relevant results for all of our search queries – and more often than not it does exactly that – it’s not perfect.
Google had recently come under more criticism when the top result for “Did the Holocaust Happen?” was a Holocaust denial website. After this was discovered, lots of new content was released with news sites debunking this or talking about the mess, and Google says it’s working on a fix, but it’s only reactive. Google needs to start looking at the problem much more aggressively. For so many people, Google is the Internet. We all know people who when they want to go open their mail, they first open Google and then search for Gmail.
Google, as an unbiased algorithm, has achieved its goal, but given the power and reach of the company today, it needs to be able to do more. Otherwise, its usefulness can only go down.