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Google announces plan to combat spread of misinformation

(Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Google announced Tuesday that it plans to spend $300 million over the next three years to help combat the spread of misinformation online and help journalism outlets.

The company said it has adjusted its systems and rankings to lead people to “more authoritative content” on Google search and YouTube, especially when it comes to breaking news events. Google said that bad actors often exploit these situations, seeking to surface inaccurate content on Google's platforms.

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Last year, Google came under intense scrutiny over the role its platforms played in the spread of misinformation during the 2016 election. Google's services have immense reach. About 1.6 billion people watch YouTube videos every month.

Officials in Washington have been closely monitoring how tech platforms including Google, Facebook and Twitter are addressing the prevalence of misinformation on their networks. In recent days, lawmakers from both parties have called for the chief executives of those companies to testify on Capitol Hill.

Google's latest initiatives follow an announcement last week from YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki, who said that the platform will soon roll out excerpts from Wikipedia to accompany videos about conspiracy theories. The text boxes and links to Wikipedia pages are designed to offer users alternative information. YouTube, which uses automated systems to recommend content to users, has been criticized for elevating salacious and extreme content.

“While we take great care to present the most authoritative information, there are many cases where users can and will find information that's not authoritative,” Google's vice president of news products, Richard Gingras, said about the search engine. Gingras added that the company is trying to find other ways to help people understand that “not all the results they see are indeed authoritative or accurate.”

On YouTube's home page, Gingras said that a breaking news section, featuring verified authoritative sources, has already been launched in 10 countries, helping users quickly learn the news of the day. He said YouTube plans to expand the feature to many more countries.

The tech giant also said that it will launch a program called the Disinfo Lab with the Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School to curb misinformation through research and education. Google said it is also partnering with the Poynter Institute, Stanford University and the Local Media Association to launch an initiative to improve digital information literacy for young people in the United States.

Google also plans to help news outlets' bottom line by helping them pull in online subscribers. An online feature that’s still being tested would use machine learning to give publishers a better idea of which readers are inclined to purchase a news subscription. The tool will also inform publishers when to prompt readers to subscribe.

Another feature called News Consumer Insights can help outlets measure and understand their audience with a dashboard of traffic data, Google said. According to Google, the feature led to a tripling of new digital subscriptions in a month at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which is one of the first outlets to test it.

Google is also launching an open source tool called Outline, which will offer news outlets the ability to set up their own virtual private network — a way to connect to the Internet without revealing Web browsing habits or communications to third parties.