The term “fake news” first gained popularity around the 2016 presidential elections, and since then politicians have not stopped talking about it. However, misinformation isn’t just a political issue. False news is also highly financially motivated. Spammers usually communicate using names of established brands to lure users to visit their websites. More often than not, these websites are ads that allow spammers to make money. According to a September 2019 report by the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), close to $235 million worth of online ads ended up on websites that have been marked for disinformation by multiple disinformation-focused organizations. What’s shocking is that the sample tested by the GDI showed that Google sends adverts to 70% of the websites that were flagged for misinformation .
Major tech companies also saw the rise of fake news as the pandemic spread across the world. Another new research by the GDI shows that tech players like Google and Amazon are providing revenue streams to known disinformation sites spreading coronavirus misinformation and conspiracies. In a sample survey of about 50 coronavirus conspiracy sites, the GDI found Google provided ad services to 86% of these websites .
Combating fake news is an important goal of major platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google. Here’s what tech companies are doing to control the flood of misinformation and fake news:
Steps taken by tech companies to combat fake news:
To prevent the spread of fake news, Google’s first attempt was the Google News Initiative. The initiative had three goals – to highlight legitimate journalism while fighting false news. To help credible news sites to grow and to give journalists reliable tools to do their jobs.
Google has also worked with organizations such as ‘First Draft’ to create “Disinfo Lab” that is focused on combating misleading news during elections.
Google also announced that there will be a round-the-clock response team that will be dedicated to coronavirus and will scrape out misinformation from Search and Youtube.
YouTube has improved its ranking system to decrease the visibility of trash comments. It also launched Top News shelf in search results and Breaking News shelf on the user’s homepage. It also surfaces authoritative content first in the search results. It also invested in trusted journalist organizations to improve news quality.
YouTube has also been launching information panels in the U.S., European countries and India that conduct fact-checking. It also increased authoritative content in the Watch Next section along with improving their machine learning to classify content as harmful, risky and fake.
Google-owned YouTube also added the World Health Organization page on the virus outbreak. The link also showed up below videos.
When it comes to curbing fake news on social media, Facebook is trying to get better at identifying misleading information with the help of third-party fact-checking organizations. Facebook is also applying machine learning to assist its response team in detecting malicious activities and fraud.
They have also launched a Facebook Journalism Project. Through this project, Facebook collaborates with news companies to develop tools, products and services for journalists that will ultimately help people make informed decisions.
Facebook is also a founder and a funder of the News Integrity Initiative. This is administered by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. The initiative’s goal is to increase news literacy to grow trust in journalism around the world.
As for containing the spread of coronavirus, Facebook is inserting a box in the user’s news feed which is directing them to the Centers for Disease Control’s page about coronavirus. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company would grant unlimited free ad credits to the World Health Organization to promote accurate information about the crisis.
The messaging platform restricted the number of forwards to 5 at once. It also labels ‘Forwarded’ to messages to help users identify false news, rumours and misinformation. However, misinformation is widely being shared by creating groups whose membership is capped at 250.
WhatsApp has also teamed up with the World Health Organization to bust myths and share authentic information about COVID-19. WhatsApp is also testing its Search Messages on WhatsApp Web feature that’ll help users track the authenticity of forwarded messages. WhatsApp recently unveiled a $1 million grant to curb misinformation and educate people on how to spot fake news.
The microblogging platform has introduced labels and warning messages, such as ‘Harmfully Misleading’ that will guide users to provide context about tweets Twitter thinks might be misleading or harmful in any manner.
Twitter is removing tweets and warning accounts that are helping in the spread of the COVID-19 fake news. The platform is also taking down tweets from profiles of public figures that are causing the spread of corona-related misleading information related to the coronavirus but some tweets may slip through despite these efforts. Under Twitter’s new guidance, tweets about fake cures for the COVID-19 will be blocked.
Additionally, when users search for COVID-19, Twitter will show results from public health organizations and credible news sources. The platform is also providing public health organizations and non-profit organizations with ad credits to support the circulation of real news.
Despite taking measures to curb fake news, tech companies fall short of keeping spammers from spreading misinformation and end up providing them with revenue. Tech companies play a key role in detecting and reducing the spread of fake news on their platforms and perhaps need to take more aggressive steps to do so.
 Global Disinformation Index Staff (2019) “The Quarter Billion Dollar Question: How is Disinformation Gaming Ad Tech” [Online] Available from: https://disinformationindex.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/GDI_Ad-tech_Report_Screen_AW16.pdf [acessed Sept 2019]
 Global Disinformation Index (2020) “Why is Ad Tech Funding These Ads on Coronavirus Conspiracy Sites?” [Online] available from: https://disinformationindex.org/2020/03/why-is-ad-tech-funding-these-ads-on-coronavirus-conspiracy-sites/ [acessed March 2020]
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