Last week, Google pledged to fight “fake news” in its search results yet offered up no solutions to the problem. That’s likely because Google has no easy fix.
Google especially came under fire after it listed a site with incorrect “final” US presidential election counts as the top listing for searches such as “final votes” or “final election count.” Here’s an example of that, spotted by Kara Eccelston, on November 13:
Media outlets soon picked up on this. In response, Google said that it would block advertising to sites that mispresent themselves and that it would work to fix the problem with its actual search results. Google CEO Sundar Pichai told this to the BBC:
This is very important to us. At Google, we’ve always cared about bringing the most relevant and accurate results to users. And that’s where almost all of our work goes, at the end of the day. When I look at, it’s important to remember we get billions of queries every day. There have been a couple of instances where it’s been pointed out, and we clearly did not get it right. And so it’s a learning moment for us, and we will definitely work to fix it. Just in the last two days we announced that we will remove advertising from anything we identify as fake news.
And yet, that site remains in the first page of results today for a search on “final election results,” as you can see below:
True, it’s not the first thing on the page, as was the case last week. It’s also moved to the second page of results for searches on “final vote” or “final election count.” But there’s little to prevent it or similar mistaken stories from repeating what caused all the criticism in the first place.
How “In the news” changed to include fake news
The first problem is that just over two years ago — back in October 2014 — Google greatly expanded what it allowed to appear within its “In the news” section of its search results, which often appears at the top of the page for news-related searches. Here’s an example:
Before the change, only content from news sites that had been vetted by human beings and admitted into Google News would appear. After the change, Google said it was pretty much anything goes for that box. It would put what it thought was “the best possible answer” whatever the source, it said.
As a result, last week, “the best possible answer” was a little known blog with made-up election figures that appeared in that box. It’s also something that could easily happen again, as Google has announced no change to what’s admitted into the “In the news” section.
Search Engine Land has specifically asked Google twice if it plans changes here, on November 15 and again on November 17. It’s not responded either time. My guess is that it’s considering some changes but hasn’t implemented them. Until it does, the situation of fake news there could easily repeat.
By the way, as I was writing this, Alexei Oreskovic from from Business Insider pinged me about a story I hadn’t seen yet, that Google, according to an unnamed source, might remove the “In the news” section and replace it with a “Top Stories” section. That won’t solve anything, however, unless it also involves only using vetted sources. It’s not clear that change will happen.
The difficulty in censoring web search
My guess is that Google will return to having only vetted sites appear in the “In the news” box. If so, that will not solve the problem of fake news still appearing in its regular search results, which are drawn from across the web.
The difficulty here is that Google has a real challenge in automatically assessing whether something is actually “true” or not. As smart as Google is, it can still be very dumb on complex and nuanced topics. It can also be mislead by those who accidentally or deliberately post material that seems to be factual in nature but is not.
I mean, even US President-Elect Donald Trump has admitted that US President Barack Obama was born in the United States, yet the first listing in Google for a search on “obama born in kenya” is a YouTube-hosted video saying Obama “admits” he was born in Kenya:
Ask Google who the “King of the United States” is, and it answers Barack Obama:
Ironically, that “answer” comes from our Search Engine Land site, because we wrote back in 2014 how absurd it was that Google was reporting this fact based on a Breitbart article. Our debunking got turned into being the source of this “fact.”
Search for “barack obama pledge of allegiance,” and the first article tells you — incorrectly — that Obama signed an executive order banning the pledge in schools:
That’s actually a satirical piece, from a site profiled last week by the Washington Post. However, unlike The Onion — a popular satire site — this one presents itself as “ABC News,” which could easily be confused with the well-known and real ABC News service. It also begins some stories as if they are from the AP — the well-known Associated Press.
The listing in the second box in the screenshot above shows a site that took this fake news at face value, further polluting Google’s search results.
The listing in the third box above may be playing a bait-and-switch game. It gives Google a title and description supporting the fake news:
However, when someone visits the page itself — which carries ads from Google — it then debunks the claim:
As for dedicated debunking sits like FactCheck.org or Snopes, they do appear in the results but only after the false claim and somewhat overwhelmed by the other pages supporting the fake news.
No quick solution; maybe no solution at all
In short, web search results are hard to police for fact checking. Google could perhaps try to classify searches that suddenly rise in popularity and which seem related to fake news, then give a boost to fact checking sites in response.
Google could also try to penalize sites that it determines are purposely trying to mislead people, but that can get tricky fast. Do you penalize a site like InfoWars from Alex Jones, who peddles a conspiracy theory about the Sandy Hook shootings? If you do, if he interviews US President-Elect Donald Trump, as may well happen, do you lift the penalty or ban just for that?
There’s no easy answer for Google here. Cutting off ad revenues won’t have an impact on some sites that don’t carry ads or carry those from others.
Surely there are some things the company can and should try, which might have an impact with search results. Cleaning up news results, which often get prominence, is the fastest solution. But cleaning up the web search results will remain messy.