We’ve all seen it. Headlines that read “You won’t BELIEVE what he did next” or “This is Not a Joke. This Person Just Revealed That …”. These articles may scream “clickbait” to those of us with our marketing glasses on, but to many users they’re just another story being shared online.
No matter what your beliefs are or which side you were on in the election cycle, you probably came across some “fake news” in the past 16 months. These less than reputable articles disguise themselves, blending in with true news coverage and opinion pieces from official publications. The term “fake news” that is being thrown around so often these days refers to false, untruthful content published by hoax news sites and extreme partisan groups. The purpose of these pieces range from clickbait articles from faux news aggregators looking for views, to spam sites using the fake headlines to increase advertiser revenue and click-through-rate, to radical conservative and liberal groups looking to push their agenda and validate their core base.
These sites appear in Google like any other result. They’re indistinguishable in the SERPs since each site listing looks the same, and they appear for relevant queries like any other result does. Google maintains that these types of sites won’t appear as often statistically due to algorithm ranking factors, such as content quality and usefulness to the end-user. The fact is though, they do appear and they’re tricking users of all ages.
The largest culprit of promoting fake news is Facebook. Even before the 2016 election cycle began, Facebook users were constantly sharing articles ripe with false information, and many of them weren’t aware they were doing it. The danger of the Facebook news feed is that these hoax news articles look the same as stories from credible sources such as the New York Times or NBC. Users will be less wary of potential fraud sites on Facebook than in the SERPs since the article is coming from a Facebook friend or relative. People are more likely to trust information if it comes from a friend. A user may see a headline and click the “share” button without knowing that the story comes from an untrustworthy source.
The examples below show how a fake news story and a real one are laid out the same way in the Facebook news feed. The first is a story from the Washington Post while the second is a fake story from a site called RT.com.
Notice that the name of the news site is extremely small, which allows users’ eyes to be drawn to the main headline instead of the source. This encourages clicks based entirely on the information in the headline.
Once a user clicks on the article, they still may not be aware that the story is coming from an untrustworthy source, since many hoax news sites have layouts that look like any other blog or publication. The site RT.com from the example above is proof of this. Its layout is clean and it doesn’t contain any pop-ups or disruptive content that may tip users off that it’s a source that collects inaccurate news. These misleading sources convince unsuspecting users of their authenticity, which leads to them being shared more often, filling up people’s news feeds with an alarming mix of real and fake news.
If Fake News is Everywhere, Can it Be Avoided?
Luckily there are new tools popping up that combat the fake news issue. These extensions automatically flag untrustworthy sites that promote false information, and give a clear warning to users before they click or share. One example is the “Fake News Alert” extension for Google Chrome. Created by journalist Brian Feldman of New York Magazine, the extension alerts you if you are viewing a fake news site based on a list of compiled sites from media studies professor Melissa Zimdars. Below is a screenshot of what the warning banner looks like on desktop. The warning reads, “The information on this site might be false or misleading”, and is bookended by black and yellow “hazard tape”.
There are also extensions created specifically for Facebook. The “B.S. Detector”, also made for Google Chrome, helps users identify fake news sources on Facebook with a large red warning on top of the shared article in the user’s news feed. The clear warning aims to make users aware, and prevent them from clicking to the site at all. It will be interesting to see how quickly and widespread these extensions are adopted. Since you must install them manually, some people predict that these blockers will only be adopted by moderate or apolitical users who wish to avoid partisan bias. Regardless, it will be interesting to watch the adoption rate of various demographics.
To test out the usability of these fake news blockers, I installed the “B.S. Detector” for Facebook on my personal laptop and logged on to see how many articles on my news feed generated a warning message. After scrolling for a significant amount of time (and at various times of the day), I was happy to see that my feed wasn’t clogged with red banners and warnings. “B.S. Detector” is pretty handy, and it makes its warning very clear in the form of a large red box over the top of the shared article. Below is an example of what the extension looks like in action.
After seeing the above result in my news feed, I decided to click to the site to see an example of an “unreliable news source” for myself. The name of the site, “bipartisanreport.com” is a perfect example of a source that seems like it would be accurate and bias-free judging by the name, but is actually an extreme partisan site with false stories. I discovered the layout was well-organized and there was no sign of spammy pop-ups or lead forms. It looked like a regular blog sharing political-oriented stories. If I weren’t inclined to be skeptical of extreme-worded political headlines, I may have viewed this site as a trustworthy source. This example backs the trend of fake news encompassing more than just clickbait articles: the term also includes thought-out, detailed stories based on false facts.
Another thing I noticed while using “B.S. Detector” is that it flagged joke sites such as The Onion and Clickhole as “misleading”. Both sites publish political satire among other things, and were likely marked with a warning because some users may take their sarcasm or jokes as fact. Current fake news blockers and extensions are based on manually uploaded lists of harmful sites, meaning a whole site might be added to the list if someone on the development team deems it “misleading”. These tools are still in early stages and will likely refine their methods of flagging as time goes on, but for now satire sites will need to be cautious about their postings if they wish to avoid being flagged by users using these extensions.
I found that most of the flagged articles I saw were shared by friends with strong partisan views, and older relatives who aren’t as familiar with the online landscape. I talked to a few of these people and concluded that most friends on my feed weren’t sharing the articles to knowingly trick people. In reality, they couldn’t decipher that the story they were sharing was false. There was no malicious intent, they only wanted to share what they thought was an article that upholds their point of view or makes an argument for their side. One friend was embarrassed that she had shared numerous false articles, and downloaded “Fake News Alert” to give herself peace of mind when sharing in the future. Every user has the right to decide how important this issue is to them, but for users who are concerned about the spread of misleading and potentially harmful information, these blockers are a great option. Fake news stories certainly won’t be going away now that the election is over, but hopefully we’ll be more aware of the issue, and take advantage of tools like this to prevent the spreading of untruthful news.
Will the Fake News Battle Affect Search as well as Social?
So what does this outbreak of fake news mean for the Search Industry, you ask? For most websites, not much. If your content is accurate and you continue promoting your business or message without the use of untruthful news, nothing will change for you. However, if you are a hoax news site, clickbait aggregator, or fanatical political blog there will be repercussions in both paid and organic search. Google’s core search algorithm is constantly evolving with the goal of showing users the most useful and relevant content, which means that faux news and spam sites will be weeded out quicker than their truthful counterparts. Google also announced that it’s changing its publisher policies to prevent fake new sites from serving ads. The goal of not allowing these types of sites to use AdSense Ads is to cut off their revenue and dissuade new ones from being created. These sites will hopefully crop up less and less without the promise of profitability through clickbait ads.
Wild, outrageous stories will always be more clickable than believable ones, simply because we expect they’ll be more interesting, but the steps being taken by Google show they are committed to the fight against fake news. As long as you keep your content truthful, you’ll avoid the fray. Essentially the moral of this story is the same one your elementary school teacher told you in class: don’t start rumors and don’t spread lies!