Google Quietly Removes “Fake News” Language From Its Advertising Policy

Google Quietly Removes “Fake News” Language From Its Advertising Policy

Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN & TYLER CHERRY

UPDATE: See below for Google’s response.

Google has removed language referencing fake news from its “prohibited content” policy for websites that use its advertising network. The policy previously stated that these sites cannot engage in “deceptively presenting fake news articles as real.”

As of January 10, at least 20 of the 24 fake news-purveying websites flagged by Media Matters in December were still using Google’s advertising network, Google AdSense, despite Google’s November 14 announcement that it would restrict websites from using the network if they feature misrepresentative content. That announcement drew a wave of positive press saying Google was combating fake news, but it appears not to have led to the promised changes. 

In December, Media Matters shared its findings directly with Google and asked the company to enforce its new policy. A Google spokesperson initially took issue with the characterization that it has a policy on “fake news,” stating that the company had “no policy specific to fake news.” Media Matters responded with a screenshot of Google’s policy page that explicitly cited “fake news” as an example of unacceptable content and offered additional evidence demonstrating that the flagged sites were in violation of Google’s policy.

Google proceeded to leave the ads on the misrepresentative sites, instead quietly removing the reference to “fake news” from its much-lauded "fake news" policy.

On December 14, Media Matters flagged 24 fake news-purveying websites -- websites that share or aggregate demonstrably fabricated stories packaged to appear as legitimate news -- using Google’s advertising service exactly one month after Google announced its ban. A January 10 review of these websites found that at least 20 of those pages are still running ads supported by Google AdSense (at least one of the websites, Observatorial, is now essentially defunct). The hyperlinked list of images at the bottom of this post shows screenshots of the sites that were still running ads that utilized Google's advertising service, which are marked with a blue triangle icon that reveals the words “AdChoices” when scrolled over and redirect to a Google ads page when clicked.

At the time that Media Matters flagged the fake news-purveying websites for hosting Google ads, Google AdSense’s official policy on “prohibited content” included language explicitly noting that websites “deceptively presenting fake news articles as real” were prohibited from hosting Google ads. That language has since been removed from the policy page without explanation (click image to enlarge):

Both Google and these websites benefit financially when the sites use the advertising network, which no doubt incentivizes the sites' creation of popular fake news content.

With Google’s original announcement saying it would ban misrepresentative content from using its advertising services and the explicit reference to “fake news” in its prohibited-content policies, the company seemed to be taking concrete steps to combat the epidemic of fake news. Its public announcement drew positive press from major news outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Reuters, and The Wall Street Journal, all of which hailed the restriction as applying to websites that put out fake news. But Google’s refusal to take action against websites in violation of its announced decision about misrepresentative content -- and its removal of explicit “fake news” language from its policy -- indicates that the promise to ban these problematic operators might have just been a public relations move.

Websites Still Running Google Ads

UPDATE:

After publication of this post, a Google Spokesperson reached out to offer reassurance and reassert that Google remains committed to enforcing its policy against misrepresentative and deceptive content, stating:

"We have not changed our misrepresentative content policy in any way. The policy language remains the same and we are continuing to enforce it vigilantly, just as when we launched it a few months ago. We've removed a large number of misleading and deceptive sites from our network as a result."

Media Matters president Angelo Carusone issued the following statement in response to Google:

While it’s reassuring to hear the revision we highlighted does not signal any wavering of Google's public commitment to addressing misrepresentative and deceptive content, we won’t be satisfied until Google enforces its policy against chronic violators, including the ones that Media Matters identified.

Make no mistake, Media Matters is concerned with the growing ambiguity around the “fake news” terminology, which is why we published a glossary last month to clarify much of the conflation we saw in the media as the issue got more attention. Regardless of the terminology Google wants to use, the fact remains that more than a month ago Media Matters flagged 24 well-documented violators of Google’s policy for their attention and review — and 20 of them are still part of Google’s ad network, despite continuing to violate the policy.

Posted In
Media Structures & Regulations
Network/Outlet
Google
Stories/Interests
Fake News
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