Updated Nov. 14, 2016 11:06 p.m. ET
Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google announced steps to prevent fake-news websites from generating revenue through their ad-selling services, signs that technology companies are moving to address a growing controversy about misinformation on the internet.
A Facebook spokesman said it will explicitly ban sites that traffic in fake news from using the Facebook Audience Network, saying they fall under the category of misleading, illegal or deceptive sites already barred. The audience network places ads on other websites and mobile apps.
Earlier Monday, Google said it plans to prevent Google ads from being placed “on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content, or the primary purpose” of the website. The policy would cover sites that distribute false news, a Google spokeswoman said.
False news stories, particularly those that spread widely on Facebook, became an issue during the recent presidential election. Google experienced its own mishap on Sunday when a story on a right-wing blog erroneously stating Donald Trump won the popular vote appeared atop some Google search results.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said Monday that President-elect Donald Trump would likely focus much of his initial foreign-policy strategy on destroying Islamic State, setting aside more vexing problems in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Both Facebook and Google appeared to be reacting to critics who have urged tech companies to try to prevent the spread of such misinformation, which critics say hurt political discourse and sharpened divisions among American voters.
“While implied, we have updated the policy to explicitly clarify that this applies to fake news,” the Facebook spokesman said. “We vigorously enforce our policies and take swift action against sites and apps that are found to be in violation. Our team will continue to closely vet all prospective publishers and monitor existing ones to ensure compliance.”
Facebook’s move doesn’t address the fake news that appears in users’ news feeds, the focus of criticism of the social network. The Facebook spokesman couldn’t specify the signals its software uses to identify fake news sites, or when it will also ask people to review the sites. He also couldn’t say why Facebook couldn’t use similar technology to stamp out fake news on its news feed.
Facebook has denied that fake news on its site affected the outcome of the election. In a post on Saturday, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said fake news accounts for less than 1% of global content on Facebook and said there are false stories with both conservative and liberal leanings.
Google largely had avoided such controversy, in part because it lacks a popular social-media site where stories are shared among users. Moreover, Google’s search algorithm favors webpages that are well-designed and are linked to by other established sites, which tends to disfavor fake news.
Google’s AdSense program, which helps website operators place ads on their sites, is the most popular tool for monetizing websites and helps fund many fake-news sites. Google has long blocked ads that misrepresent what they market, and blocks AdSense from sites that promote hate speech or include pornography or violent content.
The moves by Google and Facebook will crimp revenue at many fake-news sites, but it likely won’t obliterate the small industry of misinformation in some corners of the internet. Others offer similar ad-selling services, though they may not be as lucrative for publishers as AdSense.
On Sunday, Google was pulled into the debate concerning fake news on the web when a blog post on 70news.wordpress.com highlighting incorrect election results appeared atop some Google search results. In fact, Hillary Clinton leads Mr. Trump by nearly 700,000 votes, according to Google’s own election data, though Mr. Trump was elected president by amassing a majority in the Electoral College.
“We clearly didn’t get it right, but we are continually working to improve our algorithms,” a Google spokeswoman said via email. The 70news.wordpress site said its source for the popular-vote count was a tweet by another person. Efforts to reach the website’s operator were unsuccessful.
The little-known blog’s prominent position in some search results appeared to be a rare occurrence. An analysis by data journalists at the University of Maryland showed that the vast majority of news stories included in the “In the news” box in Google search results come from established news organizations.
CNN and the New York Times together accounted for about 44% of the links in those boxes for searches of “Hillary Clinton” and “Donald Trump” between May 31 and July 9, according to the analysis, which examined 5,604 links. In just four cases, the analysis found stories from fringe-news sites Breitbart News and InfoWars.
On Monday, after several news organizations wrote about the 70news link in Google search results, such queries began showing a so-called info box from Google on election data atop the results. The link to 70news also was displaced by established news sites reporting on the earlier link.
Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites
Over the last week, two of the world’s biggest internet companies have faced mounting criticism over how fake news on their sites may have influenced the presidential election’s outcome.
On Monday, those companies responded by making it clear that they would not tolerate such misinformation by taking pointed aim at fake news sites’ revenue sources.
Google kicked off the action on Monday afternoon when the Silicon Valley search giant said it would ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service. Hours later, Facebook, the social network, updated the language in its ad policy, which already says it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites.