In a U.S. election cycle that has stoked unprecedented demand for fact-checking, Google is taking a step to highlight news stories that perform that sober task. The company announced Friday that it has added a new “Fact check” tag to Google News, which it will apply to stories from select outlets that follow a specific protocol to label them as such. The tag will join an array of others that Google already uses to highlight certain types of articles, including "in-depth," "highly cited," and "local source."
To be clear, Google itself will not be fact-checking anything, except perhaps the qualifications of publications that would like to make their stories eligible for the tag. To do so, they'll have to demonstrate that they're nonpartisan and that their reporting follows fact-checking conventions, such as clearly identifying the claims that they're checking and checking multiple claims in the same article. Eligible stories will also need to be tagged using a markup called ClaimReview. As of now, fewer than 10 websites are using that markup, according to schema.org.
Google seems to have a somewhat narrow view of fact-checking journalism, one that defines it by form as much as by function. It will likely leave out plenty of stories that could merit the tag, while including some others that might not. At least at first, it seems to be surfacing stories mainly from dedicated fact-checking organizations, such as Politifact, rather than articles from mainstream news organizations. Still, it's nice to see one of the big tech companies taking seriously its role as a major destination for news- and information-seekers. Facebook, cowed by claims of editorial bias, recently laid off the team of human editors responsible for its trending news section and stripped their replacements of most editorial oversight responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, the result has been a plague of fake news stories and conspiracy theories in the section, even as Facebook has been working harder to combat such content in its main news feed.
The likes of Google and Facebook will never be able to filter out all factually questionable content from their feeds or search results, nor should that be their role. But their algorithms are not neutral, and they have the power to misinform as well as to inform. Taking simple steps to make it easier for people to find more carefully vetted material is a nice acknowledgement that they have a responsibility to do a little more of the former.