Google and Facebook partner for anti-fake news drive during French election

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The first round of the French presidential election is due to be held in April. So it’s no coincidence that Google and Facebook are stepping up efforts locally to combat the circulation of so-called fake news as the democratic drum beat cranks up — partnering on a collaborative initiative aimed at combating the spread of disinformation online.

Google, via its News Lab arm, is backing a collaborative verification platform called CrossCheck, that will launch in France on February 27 and continue through the French elections — bringing together a raft of local media companies to power a website where members of the public can report content they believe to be dubious, or ask questions for CrossCheck’s media partners to respond to. The tech companies will be providing data and tools to help spot potential viral fakes pertaining to the election.

The Cross Check project is led by First Draft News, a not-for-profit which counts Google’s News Lab as a founding partner, and describes its mission as the development of tools and training to “improve practices in the ethical sourcing, verification and reporting of stories that emerge online”.

“The public will be encouraged to participate by submitting questions and links to disputed sites and social content for CrossCheck to investigate. These questions will all be listed and answered on a dedicated CrossCheck website,” says an explainer on the website.

“CrossCheck brings together expertise from media and technology industries to ensure hoaxes, rumors and false claims are swiftly debunked, and misleading or confusing stories are accurately reported. With the French presidential election as its primary focus, journalists from organizations across France will work together to find and verify content circulating publicly online, whether it is photographs, videos, memes, comment threads or news sites,” it adds.

There are currently seventeen media partners for Cross Check — including: AFP (Agence France-Presse), BuzzFeed News, France Médias Monde (via les Observateurs de France 24), France Télévisions, Global Voices, Libération, La Provence, Les Echos, La Voix du Nord, Le Monde, Nice-Matin, Ouest-France, Rue89 Bordeaux, Rue89Lyon, Rue89 Strasbourg, Storyful and StreetPress — who also helped design the vetting process. (Additional newsrooms and students wanting to join the project are asked to email crosscheck@firstdraftnews.com by February 10 for more information.)

“Each participating newsroom will contribute their own experience, resources and regional knowledge to speed and strengthen the verification process, and to ensure that accurate reports reach citizens across the country and beyond,” the website adds. “CrossCheck partners, including a number of international news organizations, will ultimately make use of these reports in their own articles, programs and social media output.”

Facebook’s contribution to the effort will include supporting the vetting platform through “dedicated tools and media literacy efforts that will help to explain the verification process and keep relevant audiences up to date with confirmed and disputed information relating to the election”.

Specifically it will be providing CrossCheck partners with access to a tool called CrowdTangle to help with early discovery and monitoring of social content relevant to the election. It will also be helping to promote CrossCheck reports and resources on its platform to “relevant audiences”, through digital literacy campaigns “helping to explain the verification process and keeping the voting public up to date with confirmed and disputed information relating to the election”, according to a Google press release.

Google Trends is another of the tools that will be used by partners in the effort — feeding in data about searches about candidates and campaign claims in real-time from across France.

Other tools being deployed as part of the Cross Check initiative include:

  • Spike, NewsWhip’s technology for spotting and predicting breakout stories, social posts and viral events.
  • Hearken‘s Engagement Management System to gather and respond to questions submitted by the public
  • Meedan’s Check, a collaborative verification platform
  • SAM’s social media CMS, workflow tools and upcoming Social Newswire
  • Le Monde’s Le Décodex, a growing database of more than 600 news sites that have been identified and tagged as “satire,” “real,” “fake,” etc.

According to Les Echo Facebook has today also launched its own set of anti-fake news measures on its platform locally — letting users in France report content they believe to be fake.

The company expanded its fake news fight to Germany last month, another country with elections due this year. In Germany it’s partnering with local checking organization Correctiv to help try to identify and flag dubious content being distributed on its platform.

While in December the social media giant began flagging and down-ranking fake news on its platform in the U.S., following a storm of criticism regarding how it had allowed patently incorrect articles to be widely shared during the U.S. presidential elections last year.

Le Figaro says Facebook’s media partners in France will vet any crowdreports flagged by local Facebook users, and if at least two of the partners agree content is questionable their verdict will be reflected by badging the content on Facebook with a pictogram. Badged content will also link to media partners’ verdicts on it.

A recently published academic study suggests contextualizing disinformation with specific warnings can help defuse its potency to sway opinion online.

Facebook users still wanting to share dubious content will be shown a warning about its disputed status. The visibility of questionable content will also be down-ranked in the Facebook News Feed.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for confirmation of its anti-fake news efforts in France and will update this story with any response. Update: Facebook has said it will be working with the following organizations in France as its third party fact-checkers: AFP, BFMTV, L’Express, France Médias Monde, France Télévisions, Libération, Le Monde and 20 Minutes.

Google News Lab and First Draft News previously worked together on a joint initiative in the US, called Electionland, aimed at surfacing and reporting evidence of voter suppression around the US election in November.

In a statement about the new collaboration in France, Google News Lab’s lead in France, David Dieudonné, said: “It’s a natural next step to extend this uniquely effective and collaborative approach with newsrooms across France to cover one of Europe’s most-watched elections. We’re incredibly proud of this partnership and the new model of collaborative journalism it’s pioneering.”

While Facebook has taken perhaps the most flak (fairly or unfairly) of any of the tech giants over how its platform has helped encourage the spread of fake news, Google has also faced major criticism for its AdSense ad placement program providing a financial incentive for third parties to create fake news in order to drive clicks and generate advertising revenue. And in November Mountain View made some policy changes to try to eject fake news purveyors from its ad placement network. Facebook also amended its equivalent (the Facebook Audience Network) at the same time.

In an update at the end of last month Google noted it took down 1.7 billion ads that violated its AdSense policies — more than double the amount it removed the year before (albeit not all of these ejections pertain to fake news, but it’s clear the company is trying to step up efforts to clean up activity on the network).

Both Facebook and Google are facing shareholder resolutions asking them to report on the impact of fake news on their respective business model and its wider impact on society. Last week Politico reported on the Facebook action, by Arjuna Capital and Baldwin Bros, two small investors in the social media platform. Arjuna also filed a similar resolution regarding the Google AdSense network back in December. Contacted by TechCrunch, Facebook declined to comment on the investor action. At the time of writing Google had not responded to a request for comment.

This report was updated with additional comment from Facebook and details of the shareholder resolutions