With the US elections of 2016, the idea that social networks are teeming with fake news seems to have finally been understood around the world. This is something that many of us are already all too familiar with; doctored images circulated on WhatsApp were being used to incite violence in Bengaluru half a decade ago. But, as is usually the case, things tend to kick into gear after the US is affected, and that’s why you started seeing many more stories about fake news near the end of 2016. But one of the companies that can make a very big difference – Google – doesn’t seem to be actively doing much about this.
Google and Facebook have both moved to block fake news by restricting advertising, which is a very positive step, and Facebook has detailed steps to fight fake news. It has launched new tools to tackle this problem. That’s a start, though there’s a long way to go before Facebook’s intervention can be called “meaningful”. As the biggest social network in the world, it has the power to shape opinions and influence people – that’s why companies advertise on it after all – and it’s going to have to take some responsibility for what people put up on it. But the same has to be true for Google as well now.
“Bad” search results have come up all too often on Google, and the answer that this is just the result of algorithms, that this is just the result of what people on the Internet are saying, isn’t really cutting it anymore. The company dreams of moonshots – of an augmented reality world where you can seamlessly translate the real and the digital, where cars drive themselves while you do whatever it is that you want to do. Solving the problem of fake news, and bringing forth actually reliable results needs to be on the top of that list. We all use Google all the time, and trust it to provide us with the facts.
In India at least, WhatsApp is the most lively vector of fake news, and everyone can recount stories of the ridiculous articles that get shared on these groups. The prevailing mindset appears to be: “I got it from a friend and didn’t have time to read it, but it seemed important and so I sent it forward.” That’s what one WhatsApp user told Gadgets 360 after sharing a news article about nano-GPS chips in the new Rs. 2000 notes. This was shared a couple of days after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley confirmed that the note has no such chip.
This is a separate problem, and one that really does need to be addressed, but there’s yet another issue that has to be fixed first – and that’s fake news found via Google.
News that’s shared on Facebook or via WhatsApp is at least seen as emanating from some source. But when it’s the top search result, when it’s the suggested search, when it’s on the answer card that Google generates after you type in something in the search bar, there’s an air of impartial authenticity to whatever you see.
Facebook and WhatsApp are places of bias, but Google, well, Google can be trusted, right?
Except that’s not always true. Remember how last year, Google’s results showed pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when you searched for Top 10 criminals? Or when searching for anti-nationals took you to JNU on Google Maps? Heck, even searching for ‘2000 rupee nano chip’ right now leads to a few news sites debunking the idea, and a number of YouTube videos ‘reporting’ on the early rumours, treating them like they were completely real.
You might be thinking that this is not Google’s fault, that it comes down to algorithms, and that the exact search results that are shown for a query – for example Top 10 Criminals – are determined by a variety of factors, some of which have been well-documented and others that Google prefers to keep secret so as to make it tougher for people to game the system.
These factors include what text people are using to link to a particular website, or what information was used to describe an image. Though we trust Google to return relevant results for all of our search queries – and more often than not it does exactly that – it’s not perfect.
Google had faced more criticism recently when the top result for “Did the Holocaust happen?” was a Holocaust denial website. After this was discovered, lots of new content came up with news sites debunking that or talking about the mess, and Google says it’s working on a fix, but that’s just reactive. Google has to start looking at the issue in a much more aggressive manner. For so many people, Google is the Internet. We all know people who, when they want to go to open their mail, they first open Google, and then search for Gmail.
Google as an impartial algorithm has served its purpose, but given the power and scope of the company today, it needs to be able to do more. Otherwise, its usefulness can only go downwards.