Google has been putting more and more effort into integrating different forms of fact-checking with their services since the 2016 U. S. election. Now, they have removed one of their fact-checking features called Reviewed Claims due to pressure from conservatives after attaching a Washington Post fact-check to a Daily Caller article.
The claim that got fact-checked did not appear in the original article (although the Daily Caller does push those claims elsewhere). Google is not removing all fact-checking features, but will work towards improving the Reviewed Claims fact-checking feature before putting it back.
What fact-checking features have Google launched?
After the fake news surge of the 2016 U. S. General Election that led to Donald Trump becoming President, social media giants and tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook grudgingly acknowledged that they had played a crucial role in allowing the spread of false and deceptive content that had a substantial impact on the election. Although individuals need to know many skeptical tricks to identify fake news, the companies that allows it to spread virtually unhindered on their platforms also have responsibility.
So what has Google done about fake news so far? They have tweaked their Google search ranking algorithm to better filter out low quality content and improving the rankings of authoritative results. They have made it easier to provide feedback to Google and an army of employees who follow Search Quality Rater guidelines. They have also taken steps to crack down on the funding that fake news website get from advertising with Google. Since the financial gain from running fake news websites is now substantially diminished, the economic incentives decline over time.
What was the Reviewed Claims feature?
When you search for a publisher company using the Google search engine, there is often a Knowledge Panel with information visible on the right-hand side. Here is how it looks if you search for the company Google itself (although it is not a publisher):
Some publishers had a tab section in that Knowledge Panel called “Reviewed Claims” with fact-checked stories. This contained excerpts from stories posted to the publisher’s website and a corresponding fact-check from a reputable fact-checker. This was started in November of 2017.
Why was it removed?
The way fact-checks are attached to a story by a publisher is decided by an algorithm and algorithms are not perfect. This means that sometimes, those algorithms can make mistakes. This appears to have happened with a story from the conservative news and opinion outlet based in the United States called The Daily Caller. They published a post alleging that Robert Muller, the special prosecutor investigating the Trump-Russia collusion story, hired another Clinton donor.
The algorithm attached a Washington Post fact-check about how it is false to claim that donations to democrats made by attorneys in the Russian probe compromise their independence, yet the quote attributed to The Daily Caller does not appear in the post. That being said, The Daily Caller has written several posts ruminating over different aspects of the same myth before and it has been covered by other fact-checkers besides the Washington Post.
The Daily Caller also complained that no Reviews Claims are put on the Knowledge Panel for New York Times and other alleged “left-wing” news sources. But a partisan alternative news website like the Daily Caller is not equivalent to the New York Times when it comes to credibility or historical record of getting earth-shattering scoops.
Rather, it is comparable to fake news websites like Occupy Democrats, Addicting Info and the Palmer Report. Some of these did receive the same Reviewed Claims treatment. Also, websites like Washington Post do get search results attachments to fact-checks of their claims, just not a Reviewed Claims section.
After pressure from several conservative outlets, Google decided to suspend the Reviewed Claims section.
It turns out that it is not Google themselves who make these algorithms, but they use the independent, nonpartisan fact-checking organizations that contribute to the Schema.org ClaimReview markup. It is entirely possible to make well-informed constructive criticisms of such services, but this was not done by The Daily Caller. The event was likely due to a bug and not malicious partisan intent.
What happens now?
The “Reviewed Claims” section is one of the over 100 000 digital experiments run by Google every year. Some succeed, others fail and yet others get modified and deployed after they have had their bugs and problems fixed. Google will continue to be dedicated to fact-checking and will improve the “Reviewed Claims” feature but there is no known deadline for when this feature will be adjusted and redeployed. Google will keep fact-checking and having fact-checking features in search results and Google News.
Because Google is by far the world’s largest search engine, it is vital for it to fully integrate fact-checking efforts into their services to counter the effects of misinformation on the Internet. Not only that, they need to counter their own personalized search feature that constantly feeds people with content the search engine algorithms have decided that you like. This has facilitated people getting stuck in Internet filter bubbles.
Google has to not just undo the damage that they have done, but also step up out of the shadows to take the lead in the fight against targeted misinformation.