Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Web giants must invest to purge fake news scourge

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LENOX — For the guy in the White House, "fake news" includes any story carried by highly reputable news media — the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, CNN are his usual targets — that reflect poorly on Trump and his administration.

This past week, it was NBC's report that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called his boss a "moron" and had considered resigning. The semi-denials and spin control efforts that followed were not persuasive.

The chief executive never deigns to point out actual examples of invented stories on far-right websites that are spread by the automatons that help run Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter search engines.

Last Monday in the wake of the horrific domestic-terrorism massacre in Las Vegas, the shooter, Stephen Paddock, was depicted as an anti-Trump liberal and a convert to Islam who had already been linked by the FBI to ISIS. Google disseminated this balderdash originated by 4Chan, an online message board for wingnut trolls.

Facebook relayed a post from Alt-Right News that also misidentified the shooter and a similar concoction courtesy of the Russian government-financed news agency Sputnik. Google and Facebook blamed "algorithm errors" for spreading these fabrications.

Then there was the falsehood perpetrated by right-wing media, including Fox News, that hurricane relief supplies in Puerto Rico were sitting by the dock of the bay because the U.S. territory's truck drivers were on strike.

To his credit, it was Fox news anchor Shepard Smith who debunked the make-believe concocted by one of his colleagues. "There is no truckers' strike, the truckers in Puerto Rico are victims too," Smith said.

"Of course, the president mentioned the truckers," Smith added. "According to our reporters on the ground, many of those who would move the supplies have lost their homes and vehicles. Some of the truckers can't be reached because there's no communication working in so many areas still."

Smith went on to label the falsehood as "fake news, spread largely, it appears, by a website called Conservative Treehouse and then over Twitter and Facebook."

But, since 62 percent of Americans get at least some of their news from social media, who knows how many still believe this blame-the-victims hoax.

According to the Wall Street Journal, misinformation about the Las Vegas massacre (a second shooter), hate messages and conspiracy theories were spun on YouTube, which finally led the Google-owned site to tweak its search results to emphasize authoritative news sources.

As the Journal pointed out, "YouTube has long been full of fringe content. But as the world's largest video site and a growing rival to television, with more than 1.5 billion monthly users, YouTube's feeding of such spurious content shows how the site can contribute to the spread of misinformation."

Google and Facebook have been under scrutiny for spreading bogus "news" during last year's presidential campaign that may well have contributed to Trump's Electoral College victory.

As the top internet behemoths, these companies must cure their systems of viral disinformation. Their reported efforts at tuning up their search engines have turned out to be sputtering, half-baked measures.

Facebook, whose founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg once called "crazy" the notion that its perpetration of hoax news may have affected the outcome of the election, is now planning to add 1,000 more "reviewers' to monitor its ad content to prevent Russian meddling in next year's midterm election. A few months ago, the company hired 3,000 "content moderators" to monitor violent video on the site.

What Facebook and Google must do is to hire professional news editors to eliminate phony stories that fail to meet the basic test — accuracy.

To be sure, trusted mainstream news sources can make mistakes caused by human error, and these are promptly corrected. But leaving the display of news to easily manipulated algorithms is a recipe for disaster that threatens our already fragile and demonstrably volatile democracy.

"Virtual reality" be damned. These social media giants with money to burn can well afford to verify actual reality.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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