In an increasingly tumultuous and uncertain political atmosphere, major internet companies are feeling increasing pressure to play a larger role in regulating the dissemination of information. Recently, Facebook announced that it would introduce a new tool to its social media platform to fight the spread of “fake news,” and now search giant Google is following suit by posting results from trusted fact-checking organizations alongside search results and news articles featured on the site.
Although Google has only now introduced fact-checking elements to its regular search results, the company has been experimenting with the idea of fact-checking stories it links to for several months. In October of last year, the company announced in a blog post that it would integrate the assessments from reputable fact-checkers into its Google News site, in the form of an additional tag in the expanded story box of featured headlines. Although this method gives users relatively easy access to fact-checking results, it is not prominently displayed on the Google News site, and as such, users may not be aware of the presence of the feature.
Another blog post, published on April 7th, 2017, acknowledges the limitations of this feature by announcing an expanded presence of fact-checking materials across the search platform. As of the time of this writing, regular search results throughout the platform will be prominently in accordance with their truthfulness as determined by a variety of sources, and this feature is available globally and in all languages.
For fact-checking organizations to be included in search results, they must comply to the Schema.org ClaimReview Markup, which allows publishers to tag their web pages as containing information that confirms or denies the validity of public statements. And to determine the trustworthiness of fact-checking organizations, Google is depending on an algorithm that judges whether organizations are “an authoritative source of information,” and reserves the right to ignore any fact-checking organizations they’d like to at their own discretion.
The automatic and prominent inclusion of the results of fact-checkers in search results is a significant change to the interface most Google users engage with and speaks to both the increased skepticism of information published on the Internet among the general public and the rapid changes in our cultural and political climate. As an aggregator of search results, Google has consistently taken a non-editorialized approach to delivering information to its users, instead focusing on ensuring that users can find the information they are looking for as easily as possible.
But in the presence of technological trends favoring the construction of echo-chambers, wherein individuals are able to engage only with information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs and therefore enjoy a sense of ideological security, the proliferation of false and potentially harmful information becomes an increasingly viable strategy for attracting attention. By limiting the effectiveness of this behavior by debunking bad information upfront, before the user even clicks on an article, Google is taking a more intrusive approach in determining what type of information its users should consume.
Of course, the company is well within its rights to make this judgment call and claims to do so out of a recognition of the desires of its users. But this sort of approach to regulating information is necessarily a political stance, as the information people consume have a direct effect on their political attitudes. As such, Google’s fact-checking practice is likely to have deep but subtle implications in non-obvious ways.
For instance, the increased visibility of fact-checking organizations among the general public places a greater burden on these organizations to remain non-partisan, as the augmented scope of their visibility, and the presumed confidence in their validity among the general public, makes them a heightened target for the infiltration of manipulative information and rhetoric. Additionally, politicians may become increasingly aware of the fact that anyone with a smartphone can instantly verify the validity of their claims, and may adjust their rhetoric to compensate, or even to unduly take advantage of claims which, while accurate, they manipulate to make them seem to support an irrational position.
In a political situation as complicated and uncertain as the current one, it’s difficult to make predictions about the consequences of the actions taken by large corporations to influence the public. Time will tell the details the results of Google’s embrace of fact-checking throughout our politics.
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