Fake news sites like The Onion are well known for producing satirical news that is sometimes (albeit rarely) mistaken for the real thing. But how about sites that intentionally masquerade as real ones to trick people? Is there anyone that can stop them?
The Internet is convenient, yet often untrustworthy. The days when fairly reliable outlets like newspapers and TV were the main source for news is long gone. Today news, together with rumors and hearsay, spread through the internet in a speed one can barely imagine. Regarding the thousands of fake news stories that emerge every day, one could argues that Google (GOOG) , the dominant search engine on the internet, should be responsible for managing the intentionally misleading rumormongering. However, one may also argue that Google as a search engine is a provider of search results rather than a street sweeper for fake news.
Google Search and Fake News
Google does not on purposely spread rumors, and in fact, two years ago Google itself got burned by a fake release surface on the wire service PRWeb. The fake news report claimed that Google had purchased ICOA, a small wireless provider for $400 million. At that time ICOA’s total market cap was less than $850,000, with price per share under a penny. Tech-blogs, news sites, and many long-established outlets, including Forbes, Reuters and Associated Press pounced on the “big news” that could rock the tech world. The fake Google/ICOA acquisition article on AP was retracted hours after both Google and ICOA denied the story, but as of July 15 it still appears on Yahoo news.
The fake news, according to PRWeb, was misleading information in the PR circles planted by someone falsely representing the company. With nearly 330 million shares of ICOA traded during the day, compared to the stock’s average daily volume of 2.6 million shares at that time, it looked like a stock promoter’s illegal effort to inflate stock.
Whether these speculations concerning the motives are true or not, the more interesting thing is how fast news can circulate online even if it is fake. As mentioned before, the question is: is it Google’s responsibility?
If we realize Google's stockholders were the affected group in this case, pointing fingers at Google is probably erroneous. The buyout deal appeared on the search results page, which lead netizens to read the fake news. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean Google caused the fast circulation of this fabricated news. The direct cause of the crazy trading volume of ICOA’s stock was people’s reading the articles on those news websites.
At the very least, it’s not Google’s business to fact check AP or Reuter’s breaking news. Again, as a search engine, Google’s job is to present the results that match keywords. Blaming Google for putting fake news article links in the results is like blaming the bowl that contains toxic soup. In the ICOA/Google buyout fake news, assuming Google search engine in any scenario is accounted for rumormongering, probably the bigger responsibility falls to those news sites.
Google Play and Fake Apps
For smart phone users, another reason to blame Google for spreading false information is the safety of mobile application. In July a fake Google chat application, “Google Korean IM” (which requested Device Administration to install) aroused mass complaints from Android users because the malicious app read their texts and recorded calls.
Enjoying the convenience of downloading apps not only from Google Play, but also from search engines, drop box, or other sites, Android users in the meantime bear the potential risk of installing fake apps. Similar to the problem with rumormongering, is Google responsible for blocking those fake applications? Concerning the danger of malware to private information, in this case, Google probably would better put more efforts to regulate the app market.
In 2013 many users and experts condemned Google's failure to cleanup fake BBM apps in the official Android app store. When Blackberry (BBRY) announced BBM would come to Android phones, fraudulent BBM apps logos quickly filled Android app store Google Play. Fooled by the official-looking logos and fake reviews endorsing the apps, many keen BBMers downloaded them and suffered from malware.
Disappointing users point fingers at Google. Senior Security Advisor at Sophos said it was Google's responsibility to clean up its patch, saying "it is a great disappointment to see the Play Store apparently so easily abused like this."
By and large, Google’s responsibility for circulating fake information online is case by case. When it comes to responsibility beyond just pulling out searching results, Google is more or less accountable, like in Google Play. The company itself actually has done some efforts to guard Google Play as far as possible. For Android users, Google has records of removing apps that were shown to be malicious.
The Android phone itself has a system called Verify Apps that is designed to match downloaded app against a database of malware. Its app store, Google Play, is protected by Bouncer, a software that scans new and existing apps for malicious behaviors. In terms of Google’s responsibility as a search engine, the company is probably not the one to blame for rumormongering.
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