Thursday, December 22, 2016

The truth is out there (but not here): Google puts fake news about aliens at the top of search results

Via by Casey Newton

While the largest tech platforms continue to assure us that eliminating misinformation is both a) very important to them, and b) impossible, Google’s search results were hijacked today by fake news about space aliens caught on camera “sucking energy from the sun.” A search for “aliens” turns up a breathless report from UK tabloid Metro about the alleged energy-sucking, which is sourced to a grainy video of unknown origin posted by an anonymous “UFO fan channel.” (We are not linking to this report on purpose!)

The bogus story is newly prominent on Google’s search results page, following a recent redesign that gives added weight to “top stories” in an effort to give Google more of a real-time feel. The new design also serves to highlight articles that use Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages format, a competitor to Facebook’s Instant Articles format that makes stories load faster on mobile devices. As Kyle Chayka reported yesterday in these pages, publishers are using AMP and Instant Articles to camouflage themselves as legitimate — and platforms aren’t saying anything about what they plan to do about it.

Aliens aren’t the only fake news you’ll find in “top stories.” A quick search for the Loch Ness Monster turns up a credulous piece in the Scottish newspaper Press and Journal reporting that sightings of the (fake) monster were at their highest levels since 2016, according a local crackpot who keeps a list of these things. (The Press and Journal wrote a nearly identical story the year before, bylined by the famous journalist “REPORTER.” The story quoted the same crackpot, and presumably enjoyed a similar surge in search traffic at the time.)

The publishers of these articles deserve their share of blame, of course. Every media company is locked in a death match for readers’ attention, and headlines have become much more sensationalist as a result. (The other two links in “aliens” results today are deeply misleading, but contain a germ of truth. Research cited in the second result refers to the possibility of microbial life — not the “alien” depicted in the accompanying image.)

But by making every story look the same and advertising them as “top stories,” Google has conferred upon them a legitimacy they do not deserve. Most Americans who see fake news believe it. It beggars belief that a company that became a behemoth for the quality of its search results now presents nonsense as fact.

Google did not immediately offer a comment.


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