Fake election news meltdown vortex sucks in Google

Never believe what you read online – except this story, obviously

Google has been sucked into the post-election scapegoat meltdown after it displayed a fake news story at the top of its rankings for election result searches.

Early on Monday, internet users were surprised to discover that while trying to find the latest on the US elections (they are still counting ballots), the top Google news story claimed that Donald Trump had won both the electoral college and the popular vote.

This is, of course, not true and the story in question comes from one of an ever-expanding number of news sites that use the same style as real news reports, but repeat or invent wildly inaccurate and misleading information, typically with a strong political bias.

The fact that Google not only linked to the story but also, for a while, had it listed as the top result, has added to an increasing sense of unease over the impact of fake news on people's lives, and their decisions.

On Saturday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to defend his company against accusations that the social media giant had unwittingly swayed the tight election race in Donald Trump and the Republican Party's favor, thanks to the prevalence of fake news stories on its service.

"After the election, many people are asking whether fake news contributed to the result, and what our responsibility is to prevent fake news from spreading," Zuckerberg wrote online. "Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 per cent of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other."

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Of course, Zuckerberg did not break down what "content" means and some have been quick to point out that if you pull out material that was not related to the election (the bulk of it), then that percentage would rocket. Or, in other words, there is a serious problem with people picking up fake news on Facebook.

Facebook's increasing importance as a source of information for people has caused previous blow-ups: from a backlash that resulted in the company inviting conservative voices to its headquarters to discuss how it would remain unbiased in news coverage; to the hiring and then firing of journalists to filter content.

Originally, Facebook intended to use human editors to clear out click-bait stories that frustrated users, but during the election season the same holes were increasingly used to inject fake political stories into the social media service – stories that were then repeated and amplified across other online services.

In this most recent example, flagged by Google, the website references other also-fake sources of information, which themselves reference other fake news sources, creating an entire string of misinformation. Social scientists and psychologists have long concluded that if people hear the same information from multiple sources – typically between three and five – they become convinced of its truth.

As for Google, it used to require smaller news websites to fill out an online application to be considered as a news source, with each application reviewed by a human. That process changed a few years ago, however, when the search giant tweaked its news algorithm and now a much larger range of sources appear on its news page.

Google did not respond to requests for how the fake news site managed to get so high in its rankings – and it wasn't just for a single specific search but multiple different variations of searches for election results – and it has yet to comment on the controversy more generally. However, this being the self-regarding internet, currently the biggest news stories for "final election results" on Google are stories about Google ranking a fake news story. ®

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