What is “Fake News”?

by Ian Rosenwach on 11.15.2016

Yesterday Google and Facebook both announced they were cracking down on “fake news” sites that are using their ad networks to make money.

First some background: Google and Facebook have publisher networks that display ads sold by Google or FB on their site.  The revenue from those ads is split between the Publisher and Google/FB. For publishers and companies that don’t have an Ad sales team, or bloggers that doesn’t have time to sell ads, these programs earn them income.

Google and Facebook will start banning publishers that distribute fake news from their networks.

What is a Fake News Site?


Neither company provided much context on how they’ll be determining what news sites are “fake”, and by extension which news sites are real. Oddly, I couldn’t find any post from the companies announcing the change. The most detail was found in quotes in the Wall Street Journal, emphasis mine (behind a paywall).

From Facebook –

“While implied, we have updated the policy to explicitly clarify that this applies to fake news,” the spokesman said…”

Google, being the big Company it is, was more forthcoming –

Google said Monday that it is updating its policies to ban Google ads being placed “on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content, or the primary purpose” of the website. The policy would include sites that distribute false news, a Google spokeswoman said.

We have Facebook deciding what is real vs. fake, and Google having plenty of leeway deciding the existential purpose of a site.

Should we trust Google and Facebook to make those determinations? I trust that they’ll bar sites that use hate speech, violent images, and the like, but we should acknowledge this is a slippery slope.

When anyone – the government, a news agency, or a tech company (!) – is making a moral determination based on content, transparency is needed.

With Great Power…

There’s little doubt the recent election is playing into these decisions.

Maybe swaths of employees at Facebook and Google posited that fake news sites helped Trump win the election and this was a solution to having the same problem again. They built support across the company and couldn’t be ignored. Good for them! And I mean that, no bitterness whatsoever.

Yet we should take pause here. I won’t go into the rabbit hole of the meaning of the words real and fake, but Facebook and Google will play a role in the reality we live in. They are deciding what is fake and what is real news, and influencing the financial stability of those sites.

Think about it.

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