Will Cutting Off Ads From Google & Facebook Really Stop Fake News?

from the does-it-matter? dept

I’ve already argued that the rush to point fingers at Facebook for allowing lots of fake news to get passed around is greatly overhyped by people searching for explanations for last week’s election results. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be looking to do something about fake news on various platforms. On Monday, Google also faced some controversy over fake news, when its top result for people searching for “final election results” pointed to a fake news site with made up numbers. In response, a few hours later, Google announced that it was going to start banning fake news sites from using Google’s AdSense ad product. A few hours after that, Facebook announced a similar pledge to stop allowing those sites to make money from Facebook.

This leads to a few different thoughts: lessening the power of totally fake news sites is certainly a good idea. And cutting off conventional ad revenue paths might be at least somewhat effective in the short term. After all, recent reports have shown that many of the fake news sites were set up by people overseas in a pure arbitrage play to cash in on the easy ad revenue by finding lots of gullible Americans.

The young Macedonians who run these sites say they don?t care about Donald Trump. They are responding to straightforward economic incentives: As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising ? a declining market for American publishers ? goes a long way in Veles. Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook ? and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.


?I started the site for a easy way to make money,? said a 17-year-old who runs a site with four other people. ?In Macedonia the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money. I?m a musician but I can?t afford music gear. Here in Macedonia the revenue from a small site is enough to afford many things.?

Of course, this raises lots of other questions. If Facebook can figure out which sites are “fake” news sites, then, um, why doesn’t it also adjust its algorithm to either highlight that those are fake news sites or to simply not promote those stories in feeds quite so much? But there are a number of other issues here. Sure, for the purely fake news sites, perhaps this makes sense, but who’s determining what sites are “fake” and what’s not. Because while it sounds like a black and white kind of thing, that discussion can get fuzzy pretty damn quick. After all, some of the sites that have been discussed publish a mixture of fake and real news. And sometimes “real” publications get tricked and publish fake news too. Remember, just a few weeks ago, Rolling Stone lost a lawsuit for publishing what was basically a fake news story. And, of course, you’ll have opinionated partisans on all sides arguing that this or that publication is “fake.” We see it all the time when people yell at us for linking to certain websites that haters insist are propaganda for one or the other political parties. Where do these companies draw the line?

Another problem is that while Google and Facebook may dominate the ad business, they’re hardly the only ones. Hell, we get emails basically every day from new ad networks looking to put ads on Techdirt. Many of them seem dubious, but do kids in Macedonia running fake Trump stories care about how dubious the ad networks are? If they get paid, they’ll use them.

Finally, while cutting off ad revenue from these sites isn’t a horrible idea, it does seem to avoid the actual issue which is how so many people are absolutely terrible news consumers. And, yes, you are too. Everyone is at some point. A story just seems too good to be true, or that fits with your world view, and of course you’re going to share it, because that’s what we’ve all been conditioned to do. What would be great was if there was a way to actually train people to be better news consumers — to actually take the time to learn what’s happening and what’s really going on — but that seems like it’s just wishful thinking these days.

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Companies: facebook, google

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Comments on “Will Cutting Off Ads From Google & Facebook Really Stop Fake News?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The Onion

There’s a slight difference between the Onion and the fake news sites being talked about here. The Onion’s stories are almost all so hyperbolic that they are easy enough to spot by title alone. And if you dig a little on their page you’ll find admissions that they are satire.

The fake news sites being talked about here make every attempt to appear to be legit news organizations and their fake stories (while sensational) are very often within the realm of possibility; so much so that techdirt itself fell for one of these fake stories, later issued a correction when they realized it was fake, but then a few months later the things that was supposed to have happened according to the fake article actually did happen.

Oninoshiko (profile) says:

Re: Re: The Onion

While the OP may have written in jest, like any great joke, it hides a kernel of truth.

The question is, is that distinction one that Facebook and Google(‘s algorithms?) will properly make? How about other less well known satirical sites? What about satirical columns in “conventional news” sites? Back to the Onion, what about the Onion’s “AV Club” (which is actually legit (entertainment) news/reviews)?

As to making every attempt to appear legit and being mistaken for legitimate news: the Onion has always had a similar format as legitimate papers, and ends up getting mistaken for one multiple times every year.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m of the opinion that basic internet (and computer) competence should be a mandatory high school or middle school class, but at the same time, I don’t think a cut and dried public school syllabus would be able to adequately teach these things.

Trying to find a way to make a smarter population (consumers, newsreaders, or voters) seems like a moral good though.

That Guy says:

Harrumphing about "fake news" just misdirection to cover political censorship

Coming next: removing non-leftist material from search results and feedlists while calling it “fake news.”

Why would Google and Facebook reduce their own incomes by keeping advertisers from reaching the audiences of websites with interesting content? Advertisers care mainly about what is interesting, not what is “true.” At the same time, Google and Facebook don’t need to care why a website is popular to sell advertising on it.

No, the only explanation for keeping advertisers off websites, even though that costs both advertisers and ad networks money, is political censorship.

The top executives of Google and Facebook, whose political machinations are well-known thanks to email leaks and their own unguarded remarks, intend to censor non-leftist websites but tell everyone that the victims are being punished for supplying “fake news.” Google and Facebook have a sweet little oligopoly and can trust each other not to defect from SJW principles over the tiny profits available from booking adverts on non-leftist websites.

Websites will be told to parrot the leftist line or go bankrupt. Whenever a site shuts down for lack of income, Google and Facebook will tell advertisers to spend their advertising budgets on the politically-compliant sites which remain.

Jimb says:

I've never seen a fake news story on facebook

I rarely go to facebook to read the news and if a story was fake I can pretty much tell immediately? Why? Well, it’s because I am already informed and if I read anything on facebook it is from accounts that I already follow. I chose which ones to include in my feed because I trusted them.

Besides, the amount of fake stores really would be minor overall and hardly have an influence on the people as they more often than not hear the news from multiple sources anyway.

I found reading the NY Times or WA Post to be filled with more misleading information than reading smaller sites like Techdirt.com. I saw a considerable bias on Mike’s part yet I know he’s more reasoned than most. Reading an article by the NY Times or WA Post that’s inflammatory just to get clicks isn’t my thing.

People are smarter than these accusations make out to be. This type of accusation implies they are sheeple.

When I read this allegation about Facebook I considered it the big media trying to place blame elsewhere for their failings to understand the American people and hence predict the election properly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I've never seen a fake news story on facebook

I was discussing news sources with an acquaintance the other day.
Not only do they get all of their news from Facebook, they get all of their news from posts made by a particular bleeding heart liberal, #blacklivesmatter Facebook user (presumably linking to other news stories). Apart from the posts my acquaintance sees from that user, they say they don’t really keep up with current events.

She is by no means an unusual example.

Anonymous Coward says:

Sorry to bring politics back in this but I found this post on Soylentnews very relevant (though I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, I didn’t write it, but it’s worth reading).

” by Phoenix666 (552) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday November 16, @03:24AM (#427336) Journal

The thing that struck me about the story, and which led me to submit it, is the sheer, pure hubris of the assertion that “fake news” on Facebook cost Hillary the election. It’s a primal scream from a media that is fucking pissed that there were people out there who refused to swallow their narrative. It’s a colossal tantrum from an entitled infant who shrieks, “How DARE you ignore ME?!!!”

Hillary lost for a number of reasons. She is a corrupt insider and a criminal. She is intensely unlikeable. She lies the way most people breathe, and Wikileaks absolutely confirmed that, especially about really big things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership which she fully intended to revive once elected. She lost because she was the avatar of the Establishment, and Americans are sick to death of an Establishment which has been trying to destroy them for 40 years. She also lost, in part, because a lot of Americans are tired of immigrants coming in and taking their jobs, without any limit or pushback from elected officials. There are probably also people out there who voted against her because they genuinely hate women or because they hate brown people and think Trump hates brown people too.

But she did not lose because some fake news articles were circulated on Facebook. It’s a totally ridiculous claim. I have been getting those kinds of things from my crazy relatives for decades as chain letters on paper or via email, and they don’t make a damn bit of difference. They recruit no new adherents, and are only used for the purposes of tribal signalling.”


I agree that the argument that Hillary lost because of fake news is ridiculous and to the extent that the MSM is pushing that narrative they are seriously and desperately grasping at straws. She lost for a number of reasons but fake news is hardly one of them.

Rob (profile) says:

Have you considered...

I mostly agree with your argument here, but I think you’re missing a key point about the nature of crowds.

Firstly, you’re blaming this on people looking at the status quo and hating what they’re seeing. But the media played a massive part in shaping people’s view of the status quo in the first place. I don’t agree that what people think they see is happening in politics/society etc. is what’s actually going on.

Secondly, you suggest that FB should basically let users police the content themselves. They should be trained at better consumers of news. Personally, I believe this is just impossible at the large scale of crowds. It’s the same principle used by marketing and ad campaigns. Very small influence on any one individual but scaled up to millions of people it has a measurable effect.


Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously says:

Real Reasons

The voters were fed up with the cronyism from the political establishment. Since all the polls and pundits say Clinton is going to win, it is safe to cast a protest-vote against her without actually getting someone else elected.
It is just that a lot of people all did that. (b.t.w. the same thing happened with brexit.)

So those who forecast that she was going to win actually made it more likely she would not.

Matthew A. Sawtell (profile) says:

What is the old adage?

One man’s facts are another man’s fictions? As much as some people would love to control the entire narrative of other people’s lives – time and time again that love has been exposed and trampled into the ground like so much dust.

What is being asked is merely another version of the ‘Great Firewall’ that China has been attempting to keep up for the last couple of decades. Hell, I will not be surprised if there are complaints from those that are calling out major content portals in a few years at the new lengths the CCP are tweaking the ‘GFW’ to protect the general Chinese population from ‘fake stories’ such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Lisboeta (profile) says:

Fake News

Firstly, wailing about fake news stories on Facebook is a red herring. It’s one of the lame excuses the Dems are touting, rather than admit that the fault lay with their candidate. That said, there are a lot of gullible people who can’t sort fact from fantasy. Two years ago, Facebook was experimenting with a ‘satire’ tag because some folks thought the Onion was a legit. news site. (I do wonder: if a person is unable to recognise satire, will they understand the concept any better just because it’s labelled ‘satire’?)

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