All the Fake News You Want to Read

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print
Fake Facts

Facebook, Twitter and Google have faced criticism for spreading "news" that isn't true, but society cannot function and make good decisions without the truth.

Now that the U.S. presidential election has ended, we're seeing the inevitable and seemingly never-ending analysis. One thing that many agree on: Fake news has gotten completely out of control.

Facebook, Twitter, Google and others have faced mounting criticism over the fact that they are spreading stories that simply aren't true. It's easy to understand why: These fake news sites help boost revenue. In many cases, such as Facebook and Google, they generate substantial ad revenue as users fall under the spell of clickbait.

It's not exactly a victimless crime. Some are now questioning how fake news impacted or even changed the outcome of this presidential election. Among the whoppers: Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president, and the Clintons were involved in a massive sex slavery ring.

I regularly encounter people on Facebook and elsewhere who believe some of the whacky and insane stories they read at fake and fringe news sites—all while warning others that you can't trust mainstream news sources such as CBS, ABC, BBC, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.

Snopes and other sites that attempt to right the wrongs can't even keep up with the nonsense. An average person is completely lost in the blitzkrieg of distortions, fabrications, purported satire and outright lies. At some point, truth and fiction become inextricably intertwined.

So, kudos to Google for taking a first step to fix a nagging problem. It will change the way independent web publishers use its Ad Sense service. When people click on ads, Google makes money. The company already bans misleading and potentially fraudulent advertising, such as ads for counterfeit goods. Now it is expanding this capability.

Of course, some people will complain about the curtailment of "free speech." I already had one Facebook friend voice this sentiment in a response to one of my posts on this subject. But Google is a private company, and it has no obligation to accept ads from any company or group it deems unfit—just as newspapers, magazines and TV networks have this right. It's still possible to view search results in Google, if you wish to find a site.

A more reasonable question is whether Google and other sites can get this right? Satire and parody sites and columns such as The Onion and Andy Borowitz are no brainers. But the subtleties of other so-called humor sites are not as clear.

Ultimately, we're left with a somewhat depressing and dystopian reality, and one that we're just beginning to recognize: Society cannot function and make effective decisions without the truth.

This article was originally published on 2016-11-29
Samuel Greengard writes about business and technology for Baseline, CIO Insight and other publications. His most recent book is The Internet of Things (MIT Press, 2015).
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