Can tech conquer fake news?
Fraudulent news sites threaten the credibility of online content, but the question is whether technology can understand what is false.
Just as fake ad traffic threatens the online ad industry, so fake news content threatens the credibility of online content.
It is, essentially, the Orwellian vision of modern propaganda, updated. Millions believed preposterous stories this past election because they seemed to come from credible publications. Even if the publication — such as the fictional “Denver Guardian” — didn’t actually exist except in a fake web site.
“It’s a big problem,” mobile adtech firm AerServ’s COO Andrew Gerhart said. “”It’s really easy to put up a site — five minutes and $5.”
One question is whether tech — which is utilized to battle ad fraud at scale — can be similarly employed against fake news sites. It’s tricky, since even humans might disagree about some sites’ classification. As our own Danny Sullivan noted about Google’s attempt to technologically filter out or de-emphasize fake news in its search engine:
“The difficulty here is that Google has a real challenge in automatically assessing whether something is actually true or not. As smart as Google is, it can still be very dumb on complex and nuanced topics. It can also be misled by those who accidentally or deliberately post material that seems to be factual in nature but is not.”
And the threat extends beyond politics, since false info can and will be used to smear brands.
The New York Times reported last week, for instance, about a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. that was accused of being a child trafficking hub, because it had been implicated in fake news accounts. And Pepsi and other brands were blacklisted by Trump followers because of fake news posted on Reddit.
Whether in politics or commerce, the fight against this threat to the free flow of accurate information involves several clear battlefronts: search, social, consumers, and ad tech.
The major ecosystem players in search and social, of course, are Google and Facebook, both of which announced earlier this month that they are working to cut off advertising from sites that misrepresent content.
But the key hurdle is detecting what is fake. And even when content is determined to be fake, it may be mixed with valid content.