Study: Collecting URLs and Other Data About Fake/False News on the Net

Greetings. I have initiated a study to explore the extent of fake/false news on the Internet. Please use the form at:

to report fake or false news found on traditional websites and/or in social media postings.

Any information submitted via this form may be made public after verification, with the exception of your name and/or email address if provided (which will be kept private and will not be used for any purposes other than this study).

URLs anywhere in the world may be reported, but please only report URLs whose contents are in English for now. Please only report URLs that are public and can be accessed without a login being required.

Thank you for participating in this study to better understand the nature and scope of fake/false news on the Net.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

Google Home Drops Insightful “Donald Trump Is Definitely Crazy” Search Answer

Two days ago, I uploaded the YouTube video linked below, which recorded the insightful response I received from Google Home to the highly relevant question: “Is Donald Trump Insane?” I noted Google’s accurate appraisal on Google+ and in my various public mailing lists. The next day (yesterday) the response was (and currently is) gone for the same query to Home — replaced by the generic: “I can do a search for that.”

Interestingly, this seems to have only occurred for responses from Google Home itself. The original (text-based) answer is currently still appearing for the same query made by keyboard or voice to Google Search through conventional desktop or mobile means (however, at least for me the response is no longer being spoken out loud — and I had earlier reports that the answer response was spoken on all capable platforms).

Let’s face it — what helps to make the original answer so great is the pacing and inflections of the excellent Google Home synthetic voice! It’s just not the same reading it as text.

There would seem to be only two possibilities for what’s going on.

One possibility is that the normal churning of Google’s algorithms dropped that answer from Home (and replaced it with the generic response) solely through ordinary programmed processes.

Of course, the other possibility is that after I publicized this brilliant, wonderful, and fully accurate spoken response, it was manually excised from Home by someone at Google for reasons of their own, about which I will not speculate here and now.

Either way, the timing of this change, only hours after my release of the related video, is — shall we say — fascinating.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

How Fake and False News Distort Google and Others

With all of the current discussions regarding the false and fake news glut on the Internet — often racist in nature, some purely domestic in origin, some now believed to be instigated by Putin’s Russia — it’s obvious that the status quo for dealing with such materials is increasingly untenable.

But what to do about all this?

As I have previously discussed, my general view is that more information — not less — is the best solution to these distortions that may have easily turned the 2016 election on its head.

Labeling, tagging, and downranking of clearly false or fake posts is an approach that can help to reduce the tendency for outright lies to be treated equivalently with truth in social media and search engines. These techniques also avoid invoking the actual removal of lying items themselves and the “censorship” issues that then may come into play (though private firms quite appropriately are indeed free to determine what materials they wish to permit and host — the First Amendment only applies to governmental restraints on speech in the USA).

How effective might such labeling be? Think about the labeling of “fake news” in the same sort of vein as the health warnings on cigarette packs. We haven’t banned cigarettes. Some people ignore the health warnings, and many people still smoke in the USA. But the number of people smoking has dropped dramatically, and studies show that those health warnings have played a major role in that decrease.

Labeling fake and false news to indicate that status — and there’s a vast array of such materials where no reasonable arguments that they are not untrue can reasonably exist — could have a dramatic positive impact. Controversial? Yep. Difficult? Sure. But I believe that this can be approached gradually, starting with top trending stories and top search results.

A cure-all? No, just as cigarette health warnings haven’t been cure-alls. But many lives have still been saved. And the same applies to dealing with fake news and similar lies masquerading as truthful posts.

Naysayers suggest that it’s impossible to determine what’s true or isn’t true on the Internet, so any attempts to designate anything that’s posted as really true or false must fail. This is nonsense. And while I’ve previously noted some examples (Man landing on the moon, Obama born in Hawaii) it’s not hard to find all manner of politically-motivated lies that are also easy to ferret out as well.

For example, if you currently do a Google search (at least in the USA) for:

southern poverty law center

You will likely find an item on the first page of results (even before some of the SPLC’s own links) from online Alt-Right racist rag Breitbart — whose traditional overlord Steve Bannon has now been given a senior role in the upcoming Trump administration.

The link says:

FBI Dumps Southern Poverty Law Center as Hate Crimes Resource

Actually, this is a false story, dating back to 2014. It’s an item that was also picked up from Breitbart and republished by an array of other racist sites who hate the good work of the SPLC fighting both racism and hate speech.

Now, look elsewhere on that page of Google search results — then on the next few pages. No mention of the fact that the original story is false, that even the FBI itself issued a statement noting that they were still working with the SPLC on an unchanged basis.

Instead of anything to indicate that the original link is promoting a false story, what you’ll mostly find on succeeding pages is more anti-SPLC right-wing propaganda.

This situation isn’t strictly Google’s fault. I don’t know the innards of Google’s search ranking algorithms, but I think it’s a fair bet that “truth” is not a major signal in and of itself. More likely there’s an implicit assumption — which no longer appears to necessarily hold true — that truthful items will tend to rise to the top of search results via other signals that form inputs to the ranking mechanisms.

In this case, we know with absolute certainly that the original story on page one of those results is a continuing lie, and the FBI has confirmed this (in fact, anyone can look at the appropriate FBI pages themselves and categorically confirm this fact as well).

Truth matters. There is no equivalency between truth and lies, or otherwise false or faked information.

In my view, Google should be dedicated to the promulgation of widely accepted truths whenever possible. (Ironic side note: The horrible EU “Right To Be Forgotten” — RTBF — that has been imposed on Google, is itself specifically dedicated to actually hiding truths!)

As I’ve suggested, the promotion of truth over lies could be accomplished both by downranking of clearly false items, and/or by labeling such items as (for example) “DEEMED FALSE” — perhaps along with a link to a page that provides specific evidence supporting that label (in the SPLC example under discussion, the relevant page of the FBI site would be an obvious link candidate).

None of this is simple. The limitations, dynamics, logistics, and all other aspects of moving toward promoting truth over lies in social media and search results will be an enormous ongoing effort — but a critically crucial one.

The fake news, filter bubbles, echo chambers, and hate speech issues that are now drowning the Internet are of such a degree that we need to call a major summit of social media and search firms, experts, and other concerned parties on a multidisciplinary basis to begin hammering out practical industry-wide solutions. Associated working groups should be established forthwith.

If we don’t act soon, we will be utterly inundated by the false “realities” that are being created by evil players in our Internet ecosystems, who have become adept at leveraging our technology against us — and against truth.

There is definitely no time to waste.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

Blocked by Lauren (“The Motion Picture”)

With nearly 400K Google+ followers, I’ve needed to block “a few” over the years to keep order in the comment sections of my threads. I’m frequently asked for that list — which of course is composed entirely of public G+ profile information. But as far as I know there is no practical way to export this data in textual form. However, when in doubt, make a video! By the way, I do consider unblocking requests, and frequently unblock previously blocked profiles as a result, depending on specific circumstances. Happy Thanksgiving!

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Others: Start Taking Hate Speech Seriously!

Recently, in Crushing the Internet Liars, I discussed issues relating to the proliferation of “fake news” on the Internet (via social media, search, and other means) and the relationship of personalization-based “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” — among other effects.

A tightly related set of concerns, also rising to prominence during and after the 2016 election, are the even broader concepts of Internet-based hate speech and harassment. The emboldening of truly vile “Alt-Right” and other racist, antisemitic white supremacist groups and users in the wake of Trump’s election has greatly exacerbated these continuing offenses to ethics and decency (and in some cases, represent actual violations of law).

Lately, Twitter has been taking the brunt of public criticism regarding harassment and hate speech — and their newly announced measures to supposedly combat these problems seem to mostly be potentially counterproductive “ostrich head in the sand” tools that would permit offending tweets to continue largely unabated.

But all social media suffers from these problems to one degree or another, and I feel it is fair to say that no major social media firm really takes hate speech and harassment seriously — or at least as seriously as ethical firms must.

To be sure, all significant social media companies provide mechanisms for reporting abusive posts. Some systems pair these with algorithms that attempt to ferret out the worst offenders proactively (though hate users seem to quickly adapt to bypass these as rapidly as the algorithms evolve).

Yet one of the most frequent questions I receive regarding social media is “How do I report an abusive posting?” Another is “I reported that horrible posting days ago, but it’s still there, why?”

The answer to the first question is fairly apparent to most observers — most social media firms are not particularly interested in making their abuse reporting tools clear, obvious, and plainly visible to both technical and nontechnical users of all ages. Often you must know how to access posting submenus to even reach the reporting tools.

For example, if you don’t know what those three little vertical dots mean, or you don’t know to even mouse over a posting to make those dots appear — well, you’re out of luck (this is a subset of a broader range of user interface problems that I won’t delve into here today).

The second question — why aren’t obviously offending postings always removed when reported — really needs a more complex answer. But to put it simply, the large firms have significant problems dealing with abusive postings at the enormous scales of their overall systems, and the resources that they have been willing to put into the reporting and in some cases related human review mechanisms have been relatively limited — they’re just not profit center items.

They’re also worried about false abuse reports of course — either purposeful or accidental — and one excuse used for “hiding” the abuse reporting tools may be to try reduce those types of reports from users.

All that having been said, it’s clear that the status quo when it comes to dealing with hate speech or harassing speech on social media is no longer tenable.

And before anyone has a chance to say, “Lauren, you’re supposed to be a free speech advocate. How can you say this?”

Well, it’s true — I’m a big supporter of the First Amendment and its clauses regarding free speech.

But what is frequently misunderstood, is that this only applies to governmental actions against free speech — not to actions by individuals, private firms, or other organizations who are not governmental entities.

This is one reason why I’m so opposed to the EU’s horrific “Right To Be Forgotten” (RTBF) — it’s governments directly censoring the speech of third parties. It’s very wrong.

Private firms though most certainly do have the right to determine what sorts of speech they choose to tolerate or support on their platforms. That includes newspapers, magazines, conventional television networks, and social media firms, to name but a few.

And I assert that it isn’t just the right of these firms to stamp out hate speech and harassment on their platforms, but their ethical responsibility to do so as well.

Of course, if the Alt-Right or other hate groups (and certainly the right-wing wackos aren’t the only offenders) want to establish their own social media sites for that subset of hate speech that is not actually illegal — e.g. the “Trumpogram” service — they are free to do so. But that doesn’t mean that the Facebooks, Googles, and Twitters of the world need to permit these groups’ filth on their systems.

Abusive postings in terms of hate speech and harassing speech certainly predate the 2016 election cycle, but the election and its aftermath demonstrate that the major social media firms need to start taking this problem much more seriously — right now. And this means going far beyond rhetoric or public relations efforts. It means the implementation of serious tools and systems that will have real and dramatic impacts on helping to stamp out the postings of the hate and other abuse mongers in our midst today.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!