Google News Launches Hoax Story Into Orbit [updated]

Update (Nov 28, 2017)

-The obviously fake GearsOfBiz “news” site now shows only a blank page. However, readers can still find cached versions of the page here (Archive.org)

Update (Nov 20, 2017)

-After three days receiving Top Story positioning in the Science section, Fox News has now jumped in, and is now chasing the traffic train. It is joined some additional news outlets and the dubious (in a different way) Russia Today.

-Post updated with an additional dubious site included (The Canada Journal), and an appendix of domains from the same cluster.

Have you Visited Google News between last Saturday morning and today?* If so you might have spotted a top Science story with a headline claiming that a photo “PROVES NASA staged Apollo 17 Mission.” Or similar.

The origin of this top story on Google News Science is a single conspiracy-theory YouTube video with a wild interpretation of a blurry image. In other words, the same plot of every UFO video since home camcorders started showing up under Christmas trees. Nevertheless, it has has edged out real science news for more than three days.

The story shares a top spot with a NASA scientist complaining about being inundated with questions about other space nonsense. Shortly after I took this screenshot, the false story overtook the scientist story.

Humorously, the story initially appeared below a Washington Post reporting on a NASA scientist being pestered by internet users who were taken in by a prior dubious claim circulating last week. Shortly after I took the screenshot, the nonsense story surged past the Washington Post story.

What is going on?

In a nutshell? Google News can’t stop itself from pouring traffic kerosene on the internet’s dumpster fire of fake science stories.  

Science Nonsense (SN) like this belongs in tabloids next to the skittles in the supermarket checkout aisle, not Google’s widely trusted news site.  Yet for three days, Google News has been amplifying a story promoted by tabloids, and a cluster of dubious sites.  These sites are sloppy, rife with obvious indicators of low-quality, built on fake identities, and have no relationship to anything scientific (E.g. The Fashion Observer). 

The Science Nonsense That Google News Can’t Shake

This Science Nonsense is based on a YouTube video by pseudonymous conspiracy theorist who fancifully interprets of a low-resolution reflection in an astronaut’s visor on a grainy piece of footage. The same person offers images of martian pyramids and UFOs.  

The original YouTube source channel is filled with UFO videos

Most of the outlets that are disseminating the story are highly suspect or are tabloids (more on this later). Shortly after appearing on Google News, the story bubbled into Google Search, for searches involving the Apollo 17 mission. 

The story has persisted on Google News long enough for other news outlets to try and hop on the traffic train. Newsweek,  sensing the buzz, picked the story up a day after it began, including block paragraphs from the anonymous YouTube user without commentary, and appending a quick conclusion pointing out that conspiracy theories have been debunked in the past.

While some of the reporting uses hedge terms like ‘claims that,’ even the internet comment section knows what is going on. Several reader comments on the Newsweek story provide some critical editorial feedback. 

Todd and Jim give Newsweek some editorial feedback

 

More Than A Fact Checking Problem?

As recent articles have pointed out, algorithmic news sites have a problem with amplifying false and inflammatory stories, and conspiracy theories. Google, along with  Facebook, has recently been criticized for promoting conspiracy theories around multiple mass shootings, as well as failing to detect and block election interference. Google News was also “gamed” earlier this year to serve scammy advertising, as I wrote in June.

To address the critics, Google has doubled down on a highly publicized strategy of adding fact checking (via partners) to aggregated news results.This includes partnering with prestigious journalistic organizations, like the Poynter Institute, which sponsors the International Fact-Checking Network.  

Were the Google News Fact Checking process working properly, this SN story cluster should have been flagged. And at minimum provided with some debunking. The fact is: three days in and there is still no flag. The closest Google News gets to fact checking comes from the content itself, some of the stories have included terms like “claim” in their titles.

Google News: Your Headlines Matter!

Whether or not you think that a gentle ‘fact check’ reminder that something might be ‘off’ about a story is enough to stop people from believing it, stories about this nonsense claim should have never made it into Google News.

Headlines, as anyone who has looked at a newspaper stand knows, have clear news value. They capture your attention, and shape how you think. One study concludes that 44% of visitors to Google News simply scan headlines, and do not read the articles.  This seems about right, according to my n=1 observations.

Google News does not just amplify headlines, it adds credibility to the claims they make. According to a recent study, people view headlines as more trustworthy when they appear on Google News than when they appear in their original outlets.

“…readers are more likely to trust a headline they read in Google’s news aggregator, over the same headline on its original website.”

Quartz

An interesting New Yorker piece by Maria Konnikova makes it clear that headlines have a major cognitive framing effects, create an initial an impression that is “sticky” and hard to correct. Even if the correction is featured in the article they are attached to.  At the same time, it could not be more clear that adults and children often struggle to spot fake news.

The damage, in other words, may be done once the headline appears in the first place. No doubt it is compounded when the story won’t go away.

Perhaps if this SN attracts even more traction it will receive a debunking that Fact Check can point to on day four. By then, however, Google News will have helpfully launched this Science Nonsense launched into a stable news orbit.

Google News Cannot Spot The Lie

The fact that Apollo’s brave astronauts went to the moon is not a matter of debate. Nor is it a political or hotly contested claim. It is false information that could be instantly identified as such by any of Google’s tens of thousands of competent employees. Or a student editor at a high school paper.

In fact, Google “knows” that the Apollo 17 event took place, and helpfully provides it as a sidebar to searches about Apollo 17. The enduring presence of this SN in Google News suggests that the criteria that seem to be being used to feature “Scientific” news may be fully decoupled from even the most basic scientific knowledge, or other factual information available to Google.

Google’s Sidebar for Apollo 17: Google knows that Apollo 17 happened

Google avoids the accusations of partisanship that dogged facebook’s news editors, by avoiding human news editors, but provides no failsafe for getting rid of nonsense that gets through the algorithms.  

The success of this particular SN may be partly because Google News is sourcing from many highly dubious sites. There also may be category issues. For example, should tabloids ever be looked to as source of Science news?  

Garbage In Garbage Out: Dubious Sites Get Major Play on Google News

It is not clear why a UFO conspiracy theory would be suddenly catapulted into visibility by Google News.  Some of the sourcing is from major online tabloids (e.g. The Sun) but for the past three days, most of featured stories belong to a cluster of badly executed, dubious websites that provide fake phone numbers and questionable contact information.  Can it be that Google News is looking to these highly questionable sites for signals that an important story is breaking?

“Full Coverage” showing the presence of dubious outlets (November 18th, 2017)

The dubious websites include, among others:

Fake Fake Fake

A look through these pages immediately identifies major red flags that go far beyond obvious issues such as bad English. These include:

  • Fake editors
  • Stolen About Us content
  • Plagiarized stories
  • Fake contact information

I called the contact phone numbers listed on the websites. None of them appeared to be genuine, although I did reach some surprised and confused people. I have grouped these sites into several rough clusters based on shared accommodation addresses.  Each of the outlets shows evidence of major red flags.

 

Outlets Amplifying Story Some Red Flags Listed Address Other “news” sites Sharing the address Associated Identity
The Quebec Times, The Stopru Wrong and disconnected phone numbers, bad English Accommodation address in Toronto, Ontario The Siver Times UNKNOWN
The Fashion Observer Fake Editors, Misc plagiarized content, wrong phone numbers Address in Chester, Oklahoma   Chester Report, Crypto Crimson, The Beacon Daily UNKNOWN
Gears of Biz Plagiarized About Us UNKNOWN UNKNOWN UNKNOWN
The British Journal, Canada Journal Plagiarized About Us, wrong number, plagiarized story content Residential address in Quebec, Unknown None, however a very large number of sites linked by advertising trackers (See: Appendix A) UNKNOWN

Fake Editors

The Fashion Observer lists a “Justine Forester” as Chief Editor.  This person has an impressive bio that begins “I am a Ph.D. trained neuroscientist with over ten years of experience in biomedical research…” Which sounds like a pretty great CV for the editor of a Fashion news site. “Justine” shares the same bio as editorial staff listed on other dubious sites, such as  “Alan Cook” from Hitech News Daily and “Frankie Price,” editor at Examiner Standard.

The Fashion Observer:

Hitech News Daily:

Examiner Standard:

Stolen About Us Pages

Gears of Biz has a nonsensical mash-up of text on the About Us page that begins “Our aim is invoking the finest light for Humanity.”  It goes on to include text stolen from the reputable Nature Publishing Group.  Of course, this makes no sense on a “gadget” review website. Their only contact information, meanwhile, is a free online e-mail address.

Plagarized About Us Examples:

Gears of Biz:

The reputable science publisher Nature Publishing Group, from which the text was lifted:

The British Journal site also includes a sloppy copy-pasted Contact info, neglecting to delete the name of the Hays Post, whose website it is stolen it from.

Sloppy Copy Paste in the Contact Information on The British Journal still includes the name of the news website it was stolen from

Text stolen from the Canberra Times.

The Canada Journal also steals Contact info from a real news organization: the Canberra Times. The theft is sloppy, and the site simply pasted in addresses and phone numbers from the Canberra Times.

Fake Contact Info

The Quebec Times and The Stopru are particularly weird.  Care seems to have been taken to establish accommodation addresses, and develop a more detailed narrative. The writer(s) are clearly not native English speakers: “The Quebec Times is Quebec provincial newspaper.”  The sites also offer plenty of news about Russia in bad English about topics such as heavy snowfall in Vladivostok.

A “Quebec provincial newspaper” providing weather updates for Vladivostok, Russia

The sites have a heavy focus Russian news, and appear to be promoting stories generally favorable to Russia.

The Stopru takes a pro-Russian government line on doping allegations

If the bad English and emphasis on snowfall in Vladivostok were not enough to suggest that the site might not be Quebecois provincial news, the listed phone numbers are wrong.  A confused person reached at the only working number I could reach on The Stopru denied knowing anything about it.  The sites also list an accommodation address in Toronto as their contact information.

The British Journal also lists a phone number. A surprised and polite man in Quebec answered when I called, and explained that he had never heard of the British Journal, and that this was his personal phone number.

Gears of Biz also borrows the contact information of an individual in Connecticut. Sites linked to it (e.g. The Beacon Daily) not only use that persons number, but also borrow the phone number of a pasta shop, and an industrial lubricant manufacturer.

The Rabbit Hole

I would go on listing problems with these sites, but I can’t help feeling that I’m spending more time identifying flaws in these pages than the creators spent making them. The sites are clearly part of larger networks of sites that share content, page templates, advertising trackers and similar dubious standards.

An example of such a network can be found by examining the web presence of The British Journal. A quick look at Google’s own analytics identifier on the The British Journal site shows that the website operator is not hiding their network of related sites from the company. Using Passive Total we can see that 31 similarly dubious “news” sites share the same Google Analytics tracking identity.

Passive Total shows a total of 31 dubious sites linked to The British Journal by the same Google Analytics tracker ID

Perhaps this is diagnostic of the problem that Google News faces? In any case, it highlights that the Google News product is struggling with publisher quality control.

The Harm from Google News Product Fails

Ultimately this particular story will eventually lose its position. Maybe on day 4? Other things will likely jostle it out, right? I hope so.

When asked about the recent proliferation of false stories about the Las Vegas shooting on its platform, a Google spokesperson gave a revealing quote to Vice News.

A Gogle spokesperson speaking to a prior episode of false stories showing up in search results

This reflects a deeper philosophy: Google clearly prefers a “no hands” approach to content. This means letting constantly-tweaked algorithms sort things out, but staying away from directly picking winners and losers in what gets selected.

As Google News reaped the whirlwind of false stories that proliferated without a human editorial failsafe, the hard algorithmic line has been nuanced. Google’s approach has been to add a “fact check” feature, making it possible to flag stories. In theory. In this case, however, the facts speak for themselves:  non-credible stories have stayed on the News page so long that they are starting to look credible to other outlets. In three days they have not even been flagged for a fact check.

By surfacing interesting stories and relevant articles, Google News has earned a position as a major trusted source for news. Getting on Google News is a valuable (and lucrative) prize for news media, marketers and spammers alike.  

I suspect the sites behind this SN were seeking traffic, not achieving something more malicious.  Google News got gamed, and noise, once more, obscured signal. 

Bad Science News is a Scourge, Google Could Help

Some of the most serious issues our generation faces, like global climate change, live partly in the “Science News” bucket. There are decades of evidence that there are extensive campaigns to deny the existence of global climate change. Such campaigns include attempts to overwhelm online good science reporting with disinformation and noise.

This fake moon landing garbage reminds us that the Science News category on Google News can be successfully manipulated with false information. In fact, this story edged out many other genuinely interesting news stories in the Science News bucket.

Good and interesting science news stories stories edged out by Moon Hoax nonsense on Google News

These stories reflect serious investments of public money into science, and it is unfortunate that they have been buried.

As a company, Google depends on a highly skilled and smart workforce. Google is also a major supporter of STEM education programs. The Science News section of Google News is an opportunity to present good science to a general public. Unfortunately, like the Health News section earlier this year, it is clearly susceptible to promoting garbage. 

When Google News displaces important scientific stories with nonsense, it risks eroding the gains made by Google’s financial support for STEM programs.

Google News (and us) Got Lucky This Time

The real world consequences of false information treated as news could not be more clear. Intentionally planted false stories have inflamed ethnic tensions, caused stock market fluctuations, triggered diplomatic crises, and re-shaped elections. Historically, false stories have started wars.

The internet of today is built for marketing, and opinion shaping. This makes it an extremely powerful and appealing tool for groups with dubious motivations who wish to tinker with what people think, feel, and do. Sites like Google News and Facebook are ground zero for this malicious experimentation, and the internet has quickly become a freewheeling disinformation laboratory for those seeking to most effectively manipulate how we perceive the world around us, and how we act.

Networks of dubious ‘news’ sites, and attempts to launder information into a more credible venue are a major tool of nation state disinformation campaigns. The networks that I highlighted in this note could be used for the same purposes. In a sense, we (and Google News) got lucky.  The same buzz could have been easily created for a much more damaging, and socially inflammatory story.

Coincidentally, Google announced today that it would be encouraging Publishers to add additional ‘trust indicators’ to their content following a standard format. Whether or not these trust indicators works remains to be seen.  The presence of false information, including accommodation addresses, narratives of “local” news and lists of apparently qualified editors suggests that many of these sites have already been falsifying this information.  There is every reason to suspect that they will continue to attempt to game and deceive whatever indicators Google is looking for.

This case will (I hope) be used as a datapoint by the Google News team to hone algorithms, and refine indicators for stories and news sites that don’t belong.Is that enough? For the past three days, as this obviously false story shows up every time I check the news, I found myself asking the basic question: when will someone activate the failsafe and pull this story?  I’ve come to the uncomfortable conclusion that there may not be one.

 

*(Nov 20th, 2017)

 

Appendix A: The British Journal Cluster of Fakes

A list of sites associated with The British Journal’s Google Analytics tracker.

via a PassiveTotal search

Website First Seen Last Seen
www.jannoncebelgique.com 2017-03-25 9:05:26 2017-11-18 22:22:20
canadajournal.net 2014-11-21 7:00:41 2017-11-15 14:28:04
sportact.net 2015-05-20 8:04:47 2017-11-13 2:06:06
www.algeriesoir.com 2017-11-08 16:49:04 2017-11-08 16:49:50
apressagency.com 2017-09-02 11:53:34 2017-11-08 8:30:55
www.infomagazine.ma 2017-10-16 5:37:31 2017-11-01 5:30:21
www.connectme.ma 2017-10-10 11:48:06 2017-10-20 14:53:10
www.apressagency.com 2017-10-01 5:40:36 2017-10-05 11:17:15
www.thebritishjournal.com 2016-01-24 22:08:55 2017-09-23 0:54:14
www.wabikhir.com 2016-12-19 12:47:04 2017-09-03 21:32:03
suissenews.net 2017-06-09 14:37:55 2017-06-09 16:17:17
www.webtopnews.com 2016-09-01 14:11:15 2017-06-03 8:14:34
www.femmesnews.com 2016-11-01 21:33:55 2017-03-29 11:34:04
www.suissemag.com 2017-03-29 11:33:13 2017-03-29 11:33:13
www.starctmag.com 2016-10-28 11:05:08 2017-03-19 12:16:46
www.banates.com 2016-10-04 12:25:02 2017-03-10 6:10:56
www.infomaroc.net 2017-02-28 16:27:48 2017-02-28 16:28:40
www.tunisiesoir.com 2016-11-14 22:46:55 2017-01-23 14:29:45
secrushandscreen.com 2016-03-13 10:18:52 2017-01-04 3:33:43
www.marocjournal.net 2016-12-10 16:03:21 2016-12-21 16:33:24
pokemongo-canada.com 2016-10-16 19:53:05 2016-11-03 15:53:43
www.viefemme.com 2016-10-06 15:47:01 2016-10-22 21:57:40
www.femmesmag.com 2016-01-07 23:51:04 2016-01-07 23:53:04
belgeinfo.com 2015-05-20 8:05:26 2015-05-20 8:06:11
avirip.com 2013-06-07 13:08:38 2013-11-22 12:03:36
www.ebigpress.com 2013-07-03 21:42:57 2013-11-22 5:28:25
potinsnews.com 2013-04-25 6:00:22 2013-05-20 3:12:16
www.wabayn.com 2012-07-31 11:05:31 2012-07-31 11:05:31
www.belgeinfo.com 2012-07-21 14:04:36 2012-07-21 14:04:36
www.potinsnews.com 2012-06-27 6:56:55 2012-06-27 6:56:55
www.canadajournal.net 2012-06-08 12:53:40 2012-06-08 12:53:40

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer

My views are my own and not those of my employer, The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.  I am a past Google Ideas and Jigsaw (Alphabet) fellow.