Tackling Holocaust denial and Fake News
The internet had become our go to place for information and search engines serve as its gateway…writes Dr Andre Oboler.
With Google dominating the search engines market, accounting for 75% of all searches and 95% of mobile searches, their influence on what we believe is immense. In an ideal world, the algorithms in search engines would take us to credible sources and give us reliable information. In the real world, however, the search engines we increasingly rely upon make their decisions using algorithms which can be manipulated both for profit and for ideological reasons.
How search results are altered
The problem is not new. Those wishing to attack Jews and Israel have been manipulating search engines almost as long as there have been search engines. A search for Zionism in 2004 would provide pages of search results that were almost entirely negative in content with many results being strongly antisemitic. I spent a number of years working to quietly alter these results before the story was shared with Haaretz in 2008. That project, which received no funding, had a significant impact ultimately reaching a point where only half the sites in the first few pages were hostile.
A significant number of the sites altering the results for Zionism were from far-right sites. These sites formed a network with links backwards and forwards between the sites to convince search engines that each site in the network was credible and significant. How did we alter the search results? Part of it was creating good content optimized for search engines and the rest was learning from those promoting hate and copying their approach. We encouraged sites with legitimate content to cooperate and link to each other rather than living in silos. Scared of people clicking away from their site, many refused to include outwards links and still take this position today. This is one reason why the new generation of internet based news sites, those embedding links in their stories, generally do better online than traditional news sites whose online is like their print content and publishing without link.
Online Holocaust denial is the father of fake news
The far-right sites I dealt with also promoted Holocaust denial. There was a concern, since 2004, that the same problem that affected a search on Zionism would apply to searches related to the Holocaust. This was generally not the case as basic searches about the Holocaust usually returned search results either from Holocaust museums or from academia. If one searches for Holocaust denial, or the topics Holocaust deniers discuss, then getting results from a Holocaust denial site became far more likely.
The latest controversy on a search for “did the Holocaust happen?” falls into that category of search. Legitimate sites about the Holocaust are unlikely to contain a page dedicated to answering that question, taking it for granted that their visitors already have some general knowledge about the Holocaust and are beyond the stage of “did it happen”. In a normal world based the information shared through the classroom and the mainstream media that question just doesn’t arise. Public knowledge of basic facts is something we assume. The Holocaust occurred. Vaccines prevent diseases. Human pollution causes climate change. And that’s where the problem begins.
We live in an age where authenticity is at a premium. Trust in the mainstream media is, according to a recent gallop poll in the US, at an all-time low. A recent study by the Australian National University showed that trust in Government is at a 50 year low. Research by the British Science Association shows that while people are open to evidence from science, they don’t go out of their way to look for it; only 12% of people actively seeking out scientific information. Tom Stafford from the University of Sheffield in the UK suggests the problem isn’t that we life in a post fact world, but that trust people we believe have our interests at heart and reject “attempts to take facts out of their social context”. The result is that content is accepted when: it claims to have the readers’ interests at heart, attacks those who disagree by claiming they have an agenda against the readers interests, and provide false facts people won’t or can’t check. In this environment fake news become possible and is brought to us by the same people who grew up promoting Holocaust denial, the father of fake news.
Holocaust deniers claim the Holocaust is a hoax, the media which promotes what they call a lie does so because they claim it is controlled by Jews, the Jews and Holocaust experts they claim are part of a financial scam and they claim a fraud to secure the existence of Israel. The Holocaust deniers claim the truth is behind kept from people and present themselves as the gateway to the truth. In a world where the information is available to all, it’s easy for people to be sucked in.
What is now known as the “Alt-Right” spent years if not decades promoting Holocaust denial on places like 4Chan and Reddit. Now they’ve graduated to fake news, a network of blogs and websites that alter search results, and mainstream social media platforms like Facebook. Jonathan Albright from Elon University described the surge in activity as an “information war” saying they had created a “vast satellite system that is encroaching on the mainstream news system”.
Having your own Facts
US statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts”. Technology companies have for years disagreed, claiming they aren’t a news source and don’t edit what people see. All content in the online world was to be treated equally regardless of factual accuracy. Google, for example, claimed search results were the product of an algorithm and there was nothing it could do about problematic results. This has gone on for years, most famously with the antisemitic “Jew Watch” site appearing at the top of the search results when searching for “Jew”. Facebook refused to recognize Holocaust denial as antisemitism claiming it was instead a disagreement about historical facts. In light of the fake news scandal which may have influenced the US election result the platforms need to rethink their approach.
Facebook has been considering changes to weed out fake news since May, but realising it would disproportionately impact right-wing sites and with “a lot of fear about upsetting conservatives” inside Facebook the changes were shelved. That’s now looks like it was a mistake and Facebook has responded with a new system that allows users to linked to external sites (not Facebook posts) as fake news. When an item is reported a certain number of times it enters a clearing house and is checked by a range of fact checking organisations including not for profits and traditional news organisations. Facebook is refusing to pay for this fact checking service, essential keeping the advertising revenue while outsourcing the work. Items the fact checkers deem untrue are marked as “disputed” and given less reach when shared on Facebook.
Google has been hit with two fake fact controversies, the first related to the “In the news” section of Google search results, also known as “newsy”. It was created to show stories from vetted news sites, that is, those appearing in Google News. In October 2014 Google began allowing other search results to appear in this section to bring forward a more “diverse range of voices”. Users were not aware of the distinction which led people to believe Fake News appearing in Newsy was vetted by Google and credible. In the backlash over fake news, Google announced that in the coming weeks it will replace the “in the news” section with a rotation of “top stories” from Google News.
The second Google issue was the result of an article by Guardian columnist Carole Cadwalladr which looked at the way Google “frames, shapes and distorts how we see the world”. She illustrated her article with the example of results to the search “Did the Holocaust happen”. The top result was from the neo-Nazi forum Stormfront, one of the oldest far-right sites on the internet. The article gave 10 reasons why the Holocaust was hoax. She noted how Google manually edited search results based on her past articles highlighting problematic search results. Google has responded not with a direct edit, but with changes to their algorithm. They say they do this regularly to ensure various kinds of non-credible sites rank lower in their search results. The results appeared to sporadic and further fix followed. Holocaust denial sites were pushed off page one of the search results.
Where are we going now?
Both Facebook and google have taken the view people promoting “their own facts” should be heard, but at a lower volume than those from credible organisations with authentic information to share. There is still a reluctance to spend revenue paying for fact checking or human judgement about content. The reluctance will eventually need to be overcome. Holocaust denial is not only the earliest, but also the simplest case of fake information to address. When a system exists to properly tackle Holocaust denial online, the pay-off for the social media company that gets this right in a generalized way that can apply to other counter-factual content will be huge.