October 10, 2017 Harold Tor

Google’s reluctant fight against fake news: Sandwiched between the EU, Russian hackers and the mainstream media

After being slapped with a €2.42 billion antitrust fine by the European Commission, Google is now trying to play nice in the eyes of Brussels officials, so that none of that negative vibes would spread to Washington. And it is doing this by trying to help the EU tackle the spread of fake news.

 

What is fake news and why do politicians hate it?

Fake news has been a thorn in the side of Western politicians. Unless you are China, which has near-complete control over its internet traffic as well as an army of human cyber censorship agents, filtering the internet in both Europe Union and the US is both impossible and a bad PR move.

The reason why fake news is so worrisome to politicians is not because untrue information, or rather ‘disinformation’, is circulating wildly and creating havoc amongst the populace. This was already the case in the pre-internet era, where well-known media outlets with dubiously accredited journalists producing sensational news and tempered photos of celebrities, politicians and royalties day-in day-out in every single country. Still is the case today.

Disinformation is not limited to trashy dailys and magazines either.

Well-known ‘mainstream‘ media outlets regularly twist stories whether deliberately or subconsciously to the advantage of their funders, the government, a particular political grouping, or to anyone who pays them enough money to run a story under the guise of press neutrality.

Fake news is worrisome to politicians because it gives internet-savvy third countries’ government or to political rivals – currently labelled as ‘the populists’ – the opportunity to influence voters’ opinion.

In the national context, this means third countries or the ‘alt-right populists‘ could turn the electorate’s opinion against the ruling government thus jeopardising the chances of their re-election. Immigration and the refugee crisis is a case in point: Russian fake news sources have been publishing information and organising events to fuel anti-immigration sentiments so as to shape the political discourse in the US. They have supposedly tried to hack the US Presidential elections, which may have been a success but they have definitely failed in France. Recently, Facebook admitted to selling $100,000 worth of ads to Russian-affiliated accounts during the 2016 US presidential election.

In the international context, this is an “underhanded” (meaning: previously unused) way to tip the balance of power. The successful election of Donald Trump means the US foreign policy activities would drastically reduce in scale and take a turn in focus, and it is already so in the Middle East. This creates a void for the other superpowers to step in, namely Russia and China. The second consequence is the weakening of NATO. Should the US turn its attention from the world stage, then that includes its partners in Europe. This creates a lot of opportunity
for Russia to expand its ambitions in the previous Soviet bloc, when the security and economic progress promised by a western alliance run dry.

All this because of the internet and its free, uncontrolled and instant dissemination of information. You can see why the EU and its politicians are nervous about fake news.

 

The EU is taking on the tech giants on fake news

The freeflow of undesirable information needs to be controlled. The EU created a “East Stratcom Task Force” with 14 staffers and a few hundreds of volunteers. It has exposed around 2000 fake news in 18 languages since two years ago. But the task force is tiny compared to what China’s great firewall operation, not to mention the increased difficulty they face with the EU’s 24 official languages and a dozen other unofficial ones.

On top of that, Europe’s politicians’ hands are tied. They have not been able or are unwilling to make a direct link between Kremlin and the frenzied hacking and disinformation campaign from Russia. Also, faced with the lack of familiarity with modern digital technology, they also don’t run these American tech giants who have been closely guarding their algorithms and client information behind encryption and industrial secrets. Moreover, any attempt to filter and censor the internet would cause huge social unrest, unlike in China or the Middle East.

So what can they do? Regulate the tech giants.

One of the first tasks of the newly appointed Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel was to set up an expert group on fake news. While she claims there will most likely not be a legislation on fake news, she made it very clearly that online platforms like Google and Facebook “have a duty of care”, meaning they are required to take some level of action to monitor what their users post.

 

What is Google doing against fake news?

Google knew this day was to come and in fact it has already prepared for the fight against fake news early in 2016. But Google was acting smart: it didn’t want to release its actions on fake news until the results of its antitrust case were more or less apparent. Should it lose the competition case, its actions against fake news would help put itself back in a better light for the EU.

For SEO experts like us, Google’s fight against fake news has many repercussions and it is vital that we know how it would change Google Search forever.

 

April 2017: Project Owl

The owl is the symbol of classical Athens. It was and still is the symbol of wisdom, as it accompanies Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom, the patron goddess of the birthplace of Athenian democracy. The choice of the animal for Google’s Project Owl was thus not a coincidence: it represents human wisdom – as contrary to that of the machine which Google had always relied on, and it represents democracy – the will of the people.

You will understand the significance of the symbol when I explain the three aspects of Project Owl below:

  1. A new feedback form for search suggestions, plus formal policies about why suggestions might be removed.
  2. A new feedback form for “Featured Snippets” answers.
  3. A new emphasis on authoritative content to improve search quality.

SEO experts like myself have relied on trial and error to come up with reliable rules to help push pages to the top search results. Why trial and error? Because the algorithm behind Google’s search is a closely guarded secret. By saying it is all done by machine, Google’s message to us is also that search results are neutral. Everyone’s content currently has a level playing field in climbing up the search ranking.

This means that “harmful” or undesired content has the same opportunities as mainstream media to rise up the ranking. It was this very neutrality of search that is giving the opportunity to fake news sources to produce disinformation.

But Google is a company, not the personal firewall of EU politicians. It does not have the means to filter results, given the speed by which content and pages are created every single day.

Project Owl – the symbol of the will of the people – comes in by engaging the help of users to filter out the fake news, as announced on 25 April 2017.

In the image below from searchengineland.com, you’ll see the new feedback form for the related searches.
Type in the first few letters of your search terms and click, the dropdown list of related searches will appear. A new link on the bottom right hand corner of that list will now appear, where you can “Report inappropriate predictions“. This is because the autocomplete function often turns up offensive “related search“. By crowdsourcing user-level filtering, Google appears to be making an effort in using the human input to tweak its algorithm.

 

The second feature of Project Owl is the new feedback form for the featured snippets. Featured snippets are “answers” that Google crawled from top sites that respond to popular “w-question” searches, like “why is the sky blue“. Like the new feedback form for the autocomplete function, the featured snippet’s feedback form allows users to vote away the top result, thus improving the quality of its search, supposedly.

The last feature of Project Owl is the emphasis on “authoritative content”. To date, no one quite knows what Google means by that. For news sites, it is quite clear that this refers to mainstream media outlets but once we go down the scale, it quickly becomes a grey area whether it means a site with high traffic, high backlinks, high social shares or all of the above. If the criteria were transparent, then fake news sites can easily make themselves authoritative.

 

How does Google’s Project Owl affects search and fake news?

Is Project Owl as wise as it claims to be, or as democratic?
First of all, Project Owl violates the sacred neutrality of search. Users are already upset with the prioritisation of paid results hovering before the organic ones.

A filtered search means taking away the choice of the user to make a judgement. It is demeaning and completely contrary to what made Google popular in the first place.

But Google isn’t allowing anyone to filter out the search results as you can see. Otherwise you’d see EU officials franctically clicking away what they call fake news sources. What it is doing however, is allowing human interference in changing search relations. And that is another violation of its sacred rules: letting the algorithm do its work.

When I first started out in search engine advertising, SEO experts like myself used Google Sheets to find out what the relational qeuries were. When you type in a search term, related search terms would appear magically in Google Sheets. Once you understand all the relational queries are, you will be able to target a group of search expressions and increase the chance of your content being found. Nowadays, while location, search history, site visits, social shares etc matter in Google’s algorithm, related queries remain one of the cornerstones of the
algorithm, as Google closed the loophole soon after. Google Adword itself gives you a suggestion of related queries, but personally I find these are never the real clusters as those in Google Sheet.

The relation between queries grew organically, they are like cells that group themselves together organically. By breaking that kind of behaviour, Google is indeed violating one of the fundamental principles of its foundation. And the sudden drop in traffic of the World Socialist Web Site is a case in point.

On the other hand, when you look closer, Google is not directly responding to the politicians’ request to filter out fake news either. Filter out the top result and the related search queries are not filtering out fake news. These might affect search results in some ways, but it is definitely not an active picking away of fake news sources.

The third prong of Project Owl however, is Google’s real fight against fake news and its later move proves this.

By prioritising mainstream media sites to the top, Google is pushing down the high ranking fake news pages. The true reason why it cannot reveal how it defines “authoritative content“, is I suspect because it is indeed a manual process. Contrary to its owl symbol, the move is neither democratic nor wise: it is an opaque operation, where decisions are not based on good quality content but on content approved by the establishment and the traditional political and media players.

 

October 2017: Google ends its first-click-free programme

Earlier this month, Google finally ended its first-click-free programme, to the joy of mainstream media.

Under this programme, paid sites were required to provide a minimum of three free articles per day before users were shown the paywall.
The likes of the Financial Tmes and Wall Street Journal were vehemently against this, as it drastically diminished their revenue. In a way, the mainstream media are on the side of the politicians in the fight against fake news.

The internet has been a disaster for the “fourth estate” as they were rapidly losing readership and vital resources to sustain the business model. To the media, “fake news” do not only come from third country hackers, but also from all self-publishing bloggers and any type of online news resource.

But will the prioritisation of mainstream media in searches really reverse their fortunes?

 

What now?

Google’s sudden turnaround to tackle fake news could be seen as an attempt to appease politicians on its European front.
Whether that would really help them make peace with the EU remains to be seen. But what is certain is the violation of the sanctuous neutrality of search, as well as the fundamental related queries that SEO experts and users hold dear to.

This may be the start of the loss of consumer confidence in Google as a search engine.

The true winner of Google’s move are the established media. By coming out top in searches, whether the content is of good quality or of relevance to the user, mainstream media may just experience a surge in their much-needed online revenue stream. Yet users have got used to free content on the internet.

Will anyone pay for “authoritative” content or rather scroll down further to free, sensational and uncensored “fake news”? That remains to be seen.

Clearly, we still haven’t figured out what to do with the internet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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