Google cracks down on fake news sites

Such websites will be banned from using its online ad service

NEW YORK • Google has said it will ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service, a decision that comes as concerns mount over the effect online hoaxes may have had on the United States presidential election.

The decision relates to the Goo- gle AdSense system that independent Web publishers use to display advertising on their sites, generating revenue when ads are seen or clicked on. The advertisers pay Google, and Google pays a portion of those proceeds to the publishers.

More than two million publishers use Google's advertising network. For some time, Google has had policies in place prohibiting misleading advertisements from its system, including promotions for counterfeit goods and weight-loss scams.

Google's new policy, which it said would go into effect "imminently", will extend its ban on misrepresentative content to the websites its advertisements run on.

"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," Ms Andrea Faville, a Google spokesman, said in a statement on Monday.

She said the policy change had been in the works for a while and was not in reaction to a growing debate over the past week about whether fake news stories had influenced the outcome of the presidential election.

Republican candidate Donald Trump's surprise victory in the election has sent shock waves across Silicon Valley. Mr Geoff Lewis, an investor with venture firm Founders Fund, pinned some of the blame for the results on the tech industry on Sunday, arguing that social media sites had grown too cloistered.

Facebook has been at the epicentre of that debate, accused by some commentators of swinging some voters in favour of Mr Trump through misleading and outright false stories that spread quickly via the social network. One such false story claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Mr Trump.

Mr Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, has played down the role of fake news in the election. In a post on his Facebook page over the weekend, he said that 99 per cent of what people see on the site is authentic, and only a tiny amount of it is fake news and hoaxes.

"Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other," he wrote.

Google, too, faced criticism after last week's election for giving prominence to false news stories. On Sunday, the site Mediaite reported that the top result on a Google search for the words "final election vote count 2016" was a link to a story on a website called 70News that falsely stated that Mr Trump, who won the electoral college, was ahead of his Democratic challenger, Mrs Hillary Clinton, in the popular vote. By Monday evening, the fake story had fallen to the No. 2 position in a search for those terms.

Google says software algorithms that use hundreds of factors determine the ranking of news stories on the site. "The goal of search is to provide the most relevant and useful results for our users," said Ms Faville. "In this case, we clearly didn't get it right, but we are continually working to improve our algorithms."

It remains to be seen how effective Google's new policy on fake news will be in practice. The policy will rely on a combination of automated and human reviews to help determine what is fake.

Although satire sites like The Onion are not the target of the policy, it is unclear whether some of them, which often run fake news stories written for humorous effect, will be inadvertently affected by Google's change.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline Google cracks down on fake news sites. Subscribe