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It's a world wide web of lies (but facts strike back)

Mike Elgan | Oct. 17, 2016
The internet is overrun by urban legends, hoaxes and politicians who make up their own 'facts.' Here's help.

We all know about lemmings, right? These tiny Arctic rodents occasionally commit mass suicide by hurling themselves off cliffs en masse. Why, adorable fuzzy creatures? Why?

The answer is: They don't. Lemming suicide is a myth, a misconception, a lie.

We hold this false belief because a 1958 Disney documentary called White Wilderness staged fake lemming suicide scenes for the camera. (Disney filmmakers shipped lemmings to Canada and chased them off a cliff.) Here's the scene that created the lemming suicide myth.

It's hard to know what's true and what's false, and always has been. Hoaxes, rumors, urban legends, conspiracy theories, political spin and propaganda have been with us for millennia.

The internet has made this problem both better and worse. It's better because we can look things up and research what's true. For example, Googling "lemming suicide" returns stories on the fabrication of the myth. But it's also worse, because falsehoods are easier to spread on social media and elsewhere.

In recent months, fact-checking (which in the past only professional journalists fretted over) has become central to political discourse. "Fact-checking" has come up in discussions about the role of moderators in presidential political debates and has been repeatedly mentioned during the debates themselves.

Before the internet, most fact-checking happened before publication. Anyone who cared about facts subscribed to trusted newspapers and magazines. Editors on staff, and sometimes dedicated, full-time fact-checkers, identified and researched every factual assertion.

That's all you had to do: Pick reputable sources of news (like the publication you're reading now).

Trouble is, social media causes us to lose control over the sources of information we're exposed to. We see whatever is shared by the people we follow. And they share stories from their followers. And so on.

Technology created this problem. Can technology solve it?

Algorithms giveth, and algorithms taketh away

Google this week added a "Fact Check" item to search results. This links to an article that's designed to offer explicit fact-checking related to the search query, and it appears in the expanded story box on Google News for users in the U.S. and U.K., as well as the Google News & Weather apps on both iOS and Android.

The "Fact Check" result joins other categorical highlights, including "In-Depth," "Wikipedia," "Local Source" and, my favorite, "Opinion."

And speaking of opinion, how does Google choose which fact-check article to highlight?

The company starts by looking for ClaimReview markup, which provides specifics in a web page's code on what exactly is being fact-checked in an article. It then uses a wide range of other signals to surface what Google algorithms conclude is the most reliable and authoritative fact-checking article related to the search query.


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