Google and Facebook finally announced steps to tackle fake news on their respective platforms this week following increasing pressure from critics eager to halt the flow of falsehoods online.
Both companies said they will prohibit fake news websites from advertising on their platforms, thus reducing the exposure of such articles to the public while also starving the companies of an important source of advertising income.
The move comes after the companies received a wave of criticism over its role in propagating misinformation, particularly in this election cycle in which many observed that a bitter partisan war was potentially worsened by polarizing news sources touting untrue assertions. While the technology companies have in the past been hesitant to mediate the flow of news, this change might signal a change in thought as they come to grip with the real-life implications of lackluster surveillance on their platforms.
“While implied, we have updated the policy to explicitly clarify that this applies to fake news,” a Facebook spokesman said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “We vigorously enforce our policies and take swift action against sites and apps that are found to be in violation. Our team will continue to closely vet all prospective publishers and monitor existing ones to ensure compliance.”
Facebook said it will explicitly ban fake news sites from using the Facebook Audience Network, a system that places ads on other websites and mobile apps. On Monday, Google said it will prevent Google ads from being placed on “pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content, or the primary purpose of the web property,” the company’s spokesperson said, a category that includes fake news sites.
Technology and social media companies are increasingly seeing themselves as victims of those who game the system to spread misinformation either with purposes to mislead the public or for personal profit, as Buzzfeed recently exposed in an investigation.
Most recently on Monday, the top result for a Google search for the final results of the presidential elections is sourced to a random website that says Donald Trump has won both popular and electoral votes, The Washington Post reports (in fact, Hillary Clinton leads the popular vote). On the same day, another false Facebook trending story with more than 10,000 shares claimed that Denzel Washington backs Mr. Trump and that he called President Obama “anti-Christian,” as the Post points out. These come after a string of false news that trended throughout the campaign season that ranged from Hillary Clinton calling for civil war to Mike Pence insulting Mrs. Obama.
Technology companies have historically been hesitant to play editor to the information flowing through their platforms.
Last week, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg said it was a “crazy idea” to think that Facebook influenced the elections, emphasizing the role the technology company played was to disseminate information, not decide on content – a painful experience the company had with editors with its Trending topics previously. The company does prohibit certain content, such as nudity.
But a growing sense of responsibility among employees of tech companies may continue to add pressure on executives to take more drastic actions. As Buzzfeed reported on Monday, a group of Facebook employees took initiative to form an unofficial task force to investigate whether the company, used by 150 million Americans, is doing enough to address the problem.
"It’s not a crazy idea," a Facebook employee told Buzzfeed of the assertion that Facebook influenced the election. "What’s crazy is for [Mr. Zuckerberg] to come out and dismiss it like that, when he knows, and those of us at the company know, that fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season," a Facebook employee told Buzzfeed.
Critics say even with the new policy, Facebook still has not addressed the proliferation of false news in the News feed. Both Facebook and Google have been taking steps over the years to label news sources as “satire” or “opinion,” while also allowing users to flag false content.