Alphabet's Jigsaw sets its sights on countering fake news

Why PolitiFact is helping Facebook flag "fake news" stories and hoaxes
Why PolitiFact is helping Facebook flag "fake news" stories and hoaxes

Fake news is an internet-wide problem -- and some of the biggest tech companies have talked about banding together to fight it.

That's according to Yasmin Green, head of research and development at Jigsaw, the Alphabet offshoot that's working to foster a safer internet. Jigsaw has already piloted algorithm-based tools to tackle things like ISIS recruitment and comment trolls. It also created a Chrome extension that alerts people if websites are trying to steal their passwords.

During a conversation onstage at the WIRED Business Conference Wednesday, Green said there is an appetite among firms like Facebook (FB, Tech30) and Twitter (TWTR, Tech30) to work together to counter fake news.

"We've already had really encouraging early conversations with other platforms, so I think you're going to see more collaboration," she told WIRED senior writer Issie Lapowsky.

Green noted that while there has been a lot of media attention on fake news and hacks, there's another important aspect: Learning how that information spreads. "The part that we've really been trying to understand is, what does the dissemination of [fake news] look like?"

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Disinformation and violent extremism are challenges across the entire web, Green said, which is why Jigsaw aims to build tools that apply to a variety of platforms. "That's one of the privileges of our group -- we're not limited to looking at Google's properties," she said.

Green just returned from a trip to Macedonia where she met with peddlers of fake news stories. During the 2016 presidential election, Macedonian teenagers were responsible for a large portion of fake news. Fake news relies on social media to spread it, which is what those teens were so good at, said Green. She discovered that many of them don't even speak English -- they were just copying and pasting from other sources and making money off people clicking the stories in the U.S.

Google has curbed the ability to monetize fake news by cutting ads from sites pushing out disinformation. But fake news creators are "trying to find other ways to monetize," Green said.

Green said her team has taken "lots of field trips" to understand the people at the core of what they're trying to counter. When looking at ISIS recruitment, "we went to Iraq to interview ISIS defectors," she said, adding that it was a controversial first step for Jigsaw. The intention was to understand if ISIS recruitment is driven by a lack of access to information.

"We need to reach them when they're sympathetic but not yet sold," she said. Jigsaw then used the "redirect method" to send people it thought could be potential ISIS recruits to videos countering pro-ISIS information.

Jigsaw piloted the program for eight weeks last year; it reached 300,000 people who it said could have been sympathetic to ISIS.

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