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Why fake news is a tech problem

Mike Elgan | Jan. 30, 2017
With fake news wrecking everything, Silicon Valley is our last hope.

President Trump started calling CNN "fake news" after that network reported information the president disagreed with.

A post this week in Canada's Financial Post went full circle on "fake news." The author of the piece slams the Canadian government for an intended crackdown on "fake news," saying that the government itself spreads "fake news." The article is accompanied by a warning that the piece may itself be "fake news."

There's no question that "fake news" is a "thing" now. Australia's Macquarie Dictionary named "fake news" their "Word of the Year."

CNN created a "fake news" beat position -- not to create fake news, but to research, report and expose it.

Governments in Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic and elsewhere are setting up commissions, review boards and committees to tackle the fake news problem. These efforts are nice, but won't have the desired effect, because they don't affect the spread of fake news on social sites.

Fake news is technology's fault. Can technology fix it?

What Silicon Valley can do

The fake news problem has gotten so bad lately that Silicon Valley companies and others are scrambling for technology solutions to a technology-created problem. Google this week announced that it had banned some 200 publishers from its AdSense network. Google didn't publish a list of banned sites, which resulted from a change in the company's policy on misleading content. Google has now added a category for sites that impersonate news sites.

While the word "ban" sounds strong, the fact is that Google is merely withholding its advertising services from these sites, which are free to pursue other advertising opportunities.

Facebook reportedly updated its Trending service to reduce the viral sharing of fake news. It took an interesting approach, too. Facebook's algorithms will now eject news that's trending where that news comes from a single source. Unless a report gets pickups (original stories based on the reporting of another publication) in other publications, it won't be allowed in the Trending section.

Unfortunately, this appears to be easy to game. Fake-news sites need only to publish multiple sites, and do pickups on their own content -- something many of the fake news sites already do. Facebook also promised to de-personalized Trending topics that show the same list to all users.

The French newspaper Le Monde built a database called "Decodex" containing 600 fake-news websites that goes online in February. The database was compiled by the publication's fact checkers. Most of the sites are fake, but foreign sites like America's "Breitbart" and the "Daily News Bin" are also included. Users can paste in URLs to see if an online news piece is fake or, better yet, use a Chrome or Firefox extension that alerts readers with a color-coded system. Le Monde plans to also launch a Facebook Messenger bot for fact-checking.


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