One of the more perplexing theories to emerge explaining the failure of Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, is that popular news curators and aggregators such as Google and Facebook had distributed news created by "fake" and "false" websites, thus influencing public opinion. So, in an attempt to curb such websites, a move some consider tantamount to censorship, Google and Facebook announced measures aimed at halting the spread of "fake news" on the internet by targeting how the creators of this alleged "phony content" make money: advertising.
Google said it is working on a policy change to prevent websites that misrepresent content from using its AdSense advertising network, while Facebook updated its advertising policies to spell out that its ban on deceptive and misleading content applies to fake news. Considering the amount of fingerpointing by much of the liberal press in the aftermath of Nov. 8 we wonder if websites such as CNN would be captured by this filter.
"Moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher's content, or the primary purpose of the web property," Google said in a statement. The company did not detail how it would implement or enforce the new policy, which some accuse is the monetary equivalent of censorship.
The shifts comes as Google, Facebook and Twitter face a backlash over the role they played in the U.S. presidential election by allowing the spread of false and often malicious information that might have swayed voters toward Republican candidate Donald Trump. Of course, others have repeatedly accused both Google (which chairman Eric Schmidt's collaboration with the Clinton campaign was revealed courtesy of the Podesta emails), and Facebook of doing everything in their power to promote a Clinton win, so the narrative is not exactly clear on this one.
Reuters reports that the issue provoked a fierce debate within Facebook especially, with Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg insisting twice in recent days that the site had no role in influencing the election. Facebook's steps are limited to its ad policies, and do not target fake news sites shared by users on their news feeds.
"We do not integrate or display ads in apps or sites containing content that is illegal, misleading or deceptive, which includes fake news," Facebook said in a statement, adding that it will continue to vet publishers to ensure compliance.
Google also does not address the issue of fake news or hoaxes appearing in Google search results. That happened in the last few days, when a search for 'final election count' for a time took users to a fake news story saying Trump won the popular vote. Votes are still being counted, with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton showing a slight lead. Nor does Google suggest that the company has moved to a mechanism for rating the accuracy of particular articles. Instead, Google's change is aimed at assuring that publishers on the network are legitimate and eliminating financial incentives that appear to have driven the production of much fake news.
Effectively, Adsense is hoping to starve providers of "fringe" news by cutting them off from what to many is their chief source of funding.
AdSense, which allows advertisers to place text ads on the millions of websites that are part of Google's network, is a major source of money for many publishers.
Facebook has been widely blamed - by the left-leaning mainstream media - for allowing the spread of online misinformation, amusingly much of it pro-Trump, but Zuckerberg has rejected the notion that Facebook influenced the outcome of the election or that fake news is a major problem on the service. "Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic," he wrote in a blog post on Saturday. "Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes."
As Reuters adds, Google has long had rules for its AdSense program, barring ads from appearing next to pornography or violent content. Work on the policy update announced on Monday began before the election, a Google spokeswoman said. The company uses a combination of humans and artificial intelligence to review sites that apply to be a part of AdSense, and sites continue to be monitored after they are accepted, a former Google employee who worked on ad systems said. Google's artificial intelligence systems learn from sites that have been removed from the program, speeding the removal of similar sites.
The issue of fake news is critical for Google from a business standpoint, as many advertisers do not want their brands to be touted alongside dubious content. Google must constantly hone its systems to try to stay one step ahead of unscrupulous publishers, the former employee said.
Google has not said whether it believes its search algorithms, or its separate system for ranking results in the Google News service, also need to be modified to cope with the fake news issue.
Fil Menczer, a professor of informatics and computing at Indiana University who has studied the spread of misinformation on social media, said Google's move with AdSense was a positive step.
"One of the incentives for a good portion of fake news is money," he said. "This could cut the income that creates the incentive to create the fake news sites."
However, he cautioned that detecting fake news sites was not easy. "What if it is a site with some real information and some fake news? It requires specialized knowledge and having humans (do it) doesn't scale," he said.
While Google and Facebook have every right to tweak their ad policies however they see fit - especially if in the process their own ad revenue decline, as both companies retain a portion of the ad proceeds they pay out to content providers - the move is yet another step on a slippery slope, one which begins with determining just what is considered "fake news" and end with blanket internet censorship along ideological lines. Which we find especially ironic considering much of the "pro Clinton" press was terrified that it would be Trump who would be the one to hint at or enforce censorship. It seems the media does not need Trump for that: it can do it quite well on its own.