The midterms are an opportunity

“If this was the year in which it felt like the world was reeling from the challenges posed by the misinformation ecosystem, then 2018 will be the year it feels like we’re making progress.”

So many of the challenges we face in the world stem from a simple truth: Technological innovation is moving faster than our ability to grapple with its effects on society. That’s as true in the field of journalism as it is for any industry. While misinformation, propaganda, and fake news have been problems for a very long time, the Internet has accelerated these phenomenon by putting publishing tools in everyone’s hands and allowing for viral distribution and laser-like targeting. The very same advancements that allow for free expression of all kinds are also being used by those with bad intentions to sow doubt into the quality of information online.

If it took the events of the 2016 presidential election to expose these challenges to a global audience, then what will happen in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections next year?

I think the 2018 U.S. midterms will be a galvanizing moment to apply new strategies to fight modern misinformation campaigns. The stakes are high — not only for candidates, companies, and news organizations, but for democracy as a whole. If this was the year in which it felt like the world was reeling from the challenges posed by the misinformation ecosystem, then 2018 will be the year it feels like we’re making progress.

Part of the reason I’m optimistic is that there are many different groups who are incentivized to fight for quality journalism and against misinformation. The three most important are tech platforms, news organizations, and news consumers. Each of these groups needs to be active in the fight against misinformation in order for progress to be made.

Let’s start with tech platforms. Companies like Google are doing more to create transparency around political advertising spend on our platforms. It’s an area in which we’re far from perfect and know there’s a lot more to do in 2018. We’re also launching a number of product features to prevent the spread of misinformation through our products — with more to come.

But our algorithms can’t (and shouldn’t) be the editors of the Internet. That’s why companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Bing are behind initiatives like the Trust Project, a group of 75 news organizations that are producing indicators that newsrooms can add to their content to help readers better separate fact from fiction. Eight indicators have already been released, and our engineers are working to figure out how to best display these indicators next to articles that appear in Google News and Google Search. Groups like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and are also helping tech companies incorporate signals to identify quality journalism. And product features like our fact-check tag, designed to highlight fact-checking of newsworthy claims, are benefiting from partnerships with groups like the International Fact Checking Network to support and grow the network of fact-checkers in the world with technology and training.

We’ll see more and more initiatives like this in 2018 as platforms work to help users separate fact and fiction online — without impinging on the free expression that makes the Internet such a revolutionary platform for sharing information.

Second, news organizations are going to do more to fight fake news around the election than ever before — not just through great journalism, but through great partnerships. As we’ve seen this year in innovative collaborative reporting projects in the UK, French, and German elections, news organizations are more willing than ever to work together to fight misinformation. As the Electionland coalition heats up again, and other partnerships form around misinformation in the midterms, we’ll see a similar focus on this space in 2018.

This election cycle, news organizations will be armed with powerful new research from industry-leading groups like the First Draft coalition (of which Google News Lab is a founding partner), which has produced practical playbooks for newsrooms, and Data and Society who are doing innovative research on media manipulation by online activists. Studies like these will give journalists new insights around misinformation during election cycles that will be critical to their work.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, news consumers are going to play a central role in combating the misinformation ecosystem around the 2018 midterms. “News literacy” may have once referred to the basic skills you need to navigate your way around a newspaper, but today it means something much different given the size and scope of our information ecosystem (in fact, maybe the better term is information literacy). At Google, part of our user-centered product development approach is to ensure people know what they’re clicking on and reading. We’ve done this for a number of years with labels in Google News, and this year we integrated publisher information into our knowledge panels so that people understand the expertise and history of a publisher they’re searching for.

But clearly readers need more to help navigate the web. Research out of Stanford suggests that news consumers —
even young, tech-savvy students — struggle mightily to parse facts from fakes online. We’ve launched a regional information literacy project in Canada, and are asking ourselves what a global information literacy campaign might look like. What better time for such a campaign than around the 2018 midterms? Expect to hear more from us on this early next year.

Elections have always been a great forcing function to develop innovative approaches to journalism, and the 2018 U.S. midterms will be no different. The problems posed by the misinformation ecosystem are here to stay, and there are no quick fixes. But 2018 will be a step forward in the efforts of tech companies, news organizations, and news consumers to make progress in this space. There are more innovative people and institutions working on this challenge than ever before, and the opportunity we have to partner together gives me optimism for the future.

Steve Grove is director of the Google News Lab and an International Security Fellow at New America.

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