Google AdSense and the Origins of Fake News Stories
According to Silverman’s NPR interview, “A lot of pro-Trump content online was getting really good engagement. And so we figured that there might be people from other countries around the world who are sort of trying to grab a piece of that.” Silverman would in fact trace more than 100 bogus news sites to Veles, a small town in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The creator of one popular Macedonian site, “Alex,” claims that he was “one of the first of his countrymen to write about US politics,” writes Dan Tynan in The Guardian. “Alex” went on to say, “My city fellows saw what I was doing and started to copy my work. They are just looking to earn money from ad networks” (“How Facebook Powers Money Machines for Obscure Political ‘News’ Sites,” Guardian News and Media, Aug. 24, 2016; theguardian.com/technology/2016/aug/24/facebook-clickbait-political-news-sites-us-election-trump).
Indeed, Google AdSense (google.com/adsense) offers subscribers who host advertising on its websites a certain amount of revenue per click, usually about $10 per thousand clicks. “Google is in a lot of ways the financial engine for fake news,” Silverman tells Davies. “If you put your story in there, hopefully you’re going to get some clicks. [The Macedonians] were using Facebook to drive the traffic to the website where they had ads from Google and where they would earn money from that traffic.” One bogus news gen erator bragged that, in the run-up to the election, he pulled in up to $27,000 in a month. In a remote, hardscrabble town in the mountains of former Yugoslavia (well, anywhere really), that’s a good amount of money. (To be fair, there were sites in the United States and Britain that also posted false news in the election season for the purposes of gaining ad revenue.)
In talking with Davies, Silverman remarks that, like Face book, Google thinks of itself a technology company, not a media company. “[It] considers itself in many ways a plat form, which means they’re not there to decide what should or shouldn’t be published. They’re there to facilitate these things.”
Nevertheless, after the election, Google announced that it would stop allowing fake news sites to earn revenue through AdSense. Its statement read, “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.” However, the company did not offer any details about its plans for ad restriction.
The Consequences of Fake News
Although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the U.S. presidential election by almost 3 million votes, 80,000 people in three crucial states voted for her rival Donald Trump, who won the presidency because of his advantage in the Electoral College.
Does Silverman think that bogus news stories affected the election results? No. As he tells Davies, “I think anyone who believes that fake news won Trump the election is wrong. There’s no data to support that. And I say this as somebody who’s been looking at this data in a lot of different ways.”
Nevertheless, there were real-life consequences to the “fire hose of falsehood” that plagued this election. The most pernicious is the aforementioned #Pizzagate.
According to The Washington Post, this conspiracy theory was hatched after FBI Director James Comey revealed to Congress on Oct. 28, 2016, that he was reopening the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Two days later, a Twitter user opined about the existence of a pedophilia ring with Hillary Clinton at its center, as revealed by the recently discovered emails. The absurd assertion was re-tweeted more than 6,000 times. From there, the rumor was picked up by Reddit and 4Chan. Finally, Alex Jones, talk show host on the far-right site Infowars (infowars.com), claimed that Hillary Clinton had “personally murdered children,” and that her campaign chairman John Podesta participated in satanic rituals. These machinations were said to have taken place in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, a restaurant which has no basement (Marc Fisher, John Woodrow Cox, and Peter Hermann, “Pizzagate: From Rumor, to Hashtag, to Gunfire in D.C,” Dec. 6, 2016; washingtonpost.com/local/pizzagate-from-rumor-to-hashtag-to-gunfire-in-dc/2016/12/06/4c7def50-bbd4-11e6-94ac-3d324840106c_story.html).
The false rumor spread widely online, and the pizzeria and its staff fell victim to social media attacks and death threats. On Dec. 5, the Jones video inspired North Carolina resident Edgar Maddison Welch to “investigate” the pedophilia ring by traveling north to the restaurant with a Colt .38 caliber handgun and an AR-15 assault-style rifle, which he fired inside the busy establishment. Amazingly, no one was hurt. In spite of this violent episode, there are still many who believe the ludicrous tale about the pizza parlor and Hillary Clinton, including National Security Adviser Mi chael T. Flynn.
As for the Russian government’s influence on the fake news flood, that was still a breaking story as this column was being written. The CIA and FBI seem to have coordinated their position on the reality of the Russian attempt to influence the election as corroborated by a public statement from Barack Obama. Further consequences loom.
This presidential election was historic, and for good or ill, we must live with its consequences.