On Friday, Google implemented a new tool to fight the spread of misinformation on the web worldwide. The new "Fact Check" program automatically labels dubious stories in users' search results, and provides links to fact-checking sites like Snopes and Politifact to establish the veracity of their claims.
The new tool comes as major websites such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter continue to face pressure to check the spread of "fake news" across the internet, an issue which was catapulted into the spotlight during the US presidential campaign.
Over the past few years, sites such as Google have had to walk a fine line between policing false claims and supporting basic principles of free speech online. Google, after all, is the most popular search engine in the world, sporting more than 77 percent of the global search engine market share. And for many, that level of influence entails some responsibility to make sure its many users are not misled.
"Building systems that help people get better at judging information is an important goal and helping people notice when information might not be credible is an excellent thing to do – in my work, I call this 'designing for information assess ability,'" says Andrea Forte, an assistant professor at Drexel University's College of Computing & Informatics in Philadelphia, Penn. "But depending on corporations to be responsible for educating people about credible information is not a reasonable solution."
Dr. Forte tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email that relying on ad-revenue driven companies like Google is, at best, an "incomplete solution." She adds that major websites depend on one-sided, positive messaging in order to make money, so even programs like Fact Check will never be an entirely reliable method of eliminating fake news and providing the user with fair, balanced information.
But it's a start, she adds.
"Google was built to help people find useful information by surfacing the great content that publishers and sites create," reads a blog post from Google explaining the new feature. "This access to high quality information is what drives people to use the web and for contributors to continue to engage and invest in it. However, with thousands of new articles published online every minute of every day, the amount of content confronting people online can be overwhelming."
The new program was first tested in October, when Google gave publishers in certain countries the ability to show a Fact Check tag in Google's News section. The feature highlighted reputable articles that assessed the accuracy of statements by public figures. Now, that feature has been expanded worldwide, with fact-checking tags appearing in Google's main search results as well in as the News section.
"For the first time, when you conduct a search on Google that returns an authoritative result containing fact checks for one or more public claims, you will see that information clearly on the search results page," reads the Google blog. "The snippet will display information on the claim, who made the claim, and the fact check of that particular claim."
A network of 115 fact-checking organizations will provide the accuracy assessment for dubious articles, rather than Google providing the fact-checking service itself. As a result, Google searches based on the same claim could return different takes on the story's accuracy or inaccuracy from different fact-checkers. But even with differing takes on a given story's accuracy, Google hopes that the range of opinions from different sources will give users an idea of the "degree of consensus" on any dubious claims.
Of course, some fake news readers will likely continue to reject the truth in favor of a fake news article that seems to support their pre-existing biases. But while Fact Check won't eliminate the problem of fake news completely, Forte thinks that Google's new tool is an important step in fighting the proliferation of misinformation on the web.
"Asking companies like Google and Facebook to think about these problems and do what they can to address them is a start, because designing to help people make good judgments should be a basic consideration in the design of all information systems," says Forte. "But it doesn't go far enough. We need both technological and social solutions. Both good design and education."