It's no secret that the journalism industry is experiencing troubled financial times. But declining revenue might soon be a concern for publishers of fake news, too.
Both Facebook and Google announced new measures on Monday intended to curb the spread of fake news on its platforms. But rather than remove the content itself, or penalize those who post and share fake news, the two tech giants are attempting to cut off fake news publishers' primary source of revenue — ads.
The move comes in response to a larger issue facing two of the internet's largest tech companies: whether Facebook — and, to a lesser extent, Google — should tolerate the presence of fake and misleading news on its sites at all. According to a report by The New York Times published this past weekend, Facebook executives have been grappling with accusations that fake news shared widely on the social network may have influenced the outcome of the election, prompting questions about what role — if any — Facebook should play in curbing fake posts.
Because a too-good-to-be-true news story can drive a large amount of traffic to a fake publisher's website, advertising can be a lucrative moneymaker for unscrupulous publishers. By one estimate, a false claim that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump was shared on social media about 1.2 million times. A report by BuzzFeed last month found that a group of young Macedonian internet users were raking in as much as $5,000 per month from running pro-Trump disinformation websites and sharing links to those sites on Facebook.
More explicit policies
Facebook and Google — which led the industry last year with $8-billion and $30-billion in advertising revenue, respectively, according to Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser — have longstanding policies that bar the placement of misleading ads. But the companies are now making these rules more explicit with an aim to combating the sharp rise in fake news.
"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," Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville said in a statement.
"While implied, we have updated the policy to explicitly clarify that this applies to fake news," a Facebook spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal. "We vigorously enforce our policies and take swift action against sites and apps that are found to be in violation."
Though Google's AdSense program is by far the internet's largest advertising platform, followed by Facebook, there are still alternative revenue options for publishers of fake news — namely, the use of smaller ad networks with less oversight of who is placing those ads.
In other words, efforts by Facebook and Google alone won't necessarily stop the spread of fake news, a perennial problem online. But the changes do have the potential to make untruth less lucrative for those that rely primarily on Google or Facebook for revenue at present.