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With 'fact check' label, Google News risks accusations of partisan bias

Google built its reputation by helping people sift through a deluge of information. Now it’s trying to help them find the facts.

Just in time for Wednesday’s final presidential debate, Google News will begin giving fact-check-style articles — the kind that aim to validate or debunk statements made by a candidate or elected official — a specific label, with similar ones highlighting in-depth stories or local coverage of major events.

It’s a move that could help ensure Google News remains a vital resource for political news — but one that could also expose the tech giant to allegations of partisan bias.

Earlier this year, Facebook found itself mired in controversy when tech news site Gizmodo reported that former contractors who worked on the social network’s “trending topics” feature suppressed stories about conservative topics and from conservative outlets.

No one accuses Google of bias when its search engine ranks news articles based on their relevancy to a user’s query. So it’s possible the Mountain View, Calif., firm won’t face scrutiny when it applies a new filter to emphasize fact checks, said Robert Hernandez, a digital journalism professor at USC.

“They have always, through SEO [search engine optimization] given the ability to have the cream rise to the top,” he said.

But Google may take criticism based on the publishers it deems eligible for its fact-check label.

To qualify, stories must have easily identifiable claims and conclusions, and the analysis must be “transparent about sources and methods, with citations and references to primary sources,” according to Google. Headlines must indicate the story is a fact check and the code underlying the web page must include specific programming language so Google’s algorithm can find it. 

But there is some element of human judgment — Google says the organization publishing the story must be nonpartisan with “transparent funding and affiliations” and can’t target one person or entity in its fact checks.

Such rules would disqualify campaign-run fact checks, like the ones Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has touted at debates.

In question, though, are media-run fact checks. A Google spokeswoman said newspapers like the Los Angeles Times could use the fact-check tag. But when asked whether conservative news site Breitbart News or progressive publication Mother Jones would be eligible, she declined to comment and referred back to the company’s guidelines.

If Google isn’t consistent in the way it enforces its rules, it could pose a problem, said Finn Brunton, assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU.

"It’s a brilliant program, but at its heart, it’s a program that has to rely, at least in some degree, on people making those calls,” Brunton said.

If sites don’t meet the company’s criteria and try to obtain the fact-check tag anyway, Google said it could ignore the coding language or remove the site from Google News.

Google’s algorithm puts the burden of proof on publishers, making the company less likely to run into allegations of bias than Facebook, which at first relied on an editorial staff, said Susan Bidel, a senior analyst at Forrester who covers digital media.

“They’re not picking a side,” she said. “They’re saying this publisher is adhering to this set of guidelines or they’re not. If they’re not, then they won’t have the tag.” 

But algorithms aren’t infallible. After the controversy about Facebook’s “trending topics” feature, the Menlo Park, Calif., social media giant said it transitioned to a more “algorithmically driven process” that would allow for more topics to be covered. Then hoaxes began surfacing on the feature, including a conspiracy theory about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

With its expertise in search, Google is well-positioned to spotlight the best content, Hernandez said.

“With a lot of misinformation, we turn to diverse sources to get informed,” he said. “Google is one hell of a player in that space.”

The sheer amount of information, both true and false, on the Internet could make Google’s new label useful and effective, Brunton said.

Google and Facebook “set out to organize and make available the world’s information … and the way in which they’ve done that has transformed them into de facto news organizations,” he said.

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

For more business news, follow me @smasunaga

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