Google will try to starve fake news sites of ad dollars

No more dollars for fake news.
No more dollars for fake news.
Image: Reuters/Peter Power
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Silicon Valley is being forced to come to terms with the idea that it may bear some responsibility for the information passing through its servers.

Google announced on Nov. 14 that it’s working on a policy that will restrict ads placed on fake news sites. A Google spokeswoman told Reuters that a policy change for its AdSense advertising network is imminent. “Moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content, or the primary purpose of the web property,” she said. AdSense is at the heart of many publishers’ revenue model. The statement did not give details on whether it would affect products such as DoubleClick that target and deliver ad campaigns, and the policy does not address hoaxes appearing in Google search results.

The announcement comes as Facebook faces harsh criticism for allowing false information to be spread among its users ahead of the US presidential election. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has promised to “find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful,” despite characterizing claims that the company had a significant role in the election’s outcome as a “pretty crazy idea.”

That response has failed to impress, even to those inside Facebook. BuzzFeed reported today that a group of Facebook employees has formed to tackle the company’s role in promoting fake news on its own. “It’s not a crazy idea,” one Facebook engineer told Buzzfeed. “What’s crazy is for him to come out and dismiss it like that, when he knows, and those of us at the company know, that fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season.”

Fake news sites that feed false, inflammatory information to a credulous American public have risen as a way to make easy money. In a BuzzFeed investigation, 140 websites dedicated to US politics were traced back to a small Macedonian town called Veles (population 45,000), where young men churned out stories “aggregated, or completely plagiarized, from fringe and right-wing sites in the US.” Since it’s cheap to register a domain, and set@an up shop overseas, junk sites like worldpoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, and USConservativeToday.com can be easily manufactured and unleashed on social media networks, where the clicks can be turned into revenue.

Google itself has fallen victim to this type of news. Recent weeks have seen fake articles rise to the top of Google’s vaunted rankings, with obscure websites promoting the (false) idea that Trump is leading in the popular vote placing above reputable news organizations in searches.

Google’s attempt to cut off these sites from ad dollars won’t be easy, said Rob Leathern, founder of online advertising and payment software company Optimal. “The reason fake news sites exist is the advertising revenue,” he said in an interview. “But it’s not as easy as flicking a switch and turning off the revenue.”

There are sites around the world are dedicated to circumventing Google’s controls. Unscrupulous owners can buy existing AdSense accounts online that may help evade the new policy. Simply determining if a site is “fake” will be a challenge. Since the financial incentive is there, it will be hard to stamp out. A fake viral news hit can rake in $1,000 or more in banner advertising dollars from ad networks run by Amazon.com, Google, and Revcontent, said Leathern, who analyzed fake news sites in a recent Medium post.

And AdSense is only part of the online advertising ecosystem. As long as these sites continue to drive real traffic, they’ll likely be able to find ways to make money off them.