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Facebook and Google make lies as pretty as truth

How AMP and Instant Articles camouflage fake news

If you asked Google who won the popular vote just after the election, there’s a chance you would have been sent to a conspiracy blog with bogus results. And the site is likely to have looked as legitimate as any other.


The fake news problem we’re facing isn’t just about articles gaining traffic from Facebook timelines or Google search results. It’s also an issue of news literacy — a reader’s ability to discern credible news. And it’s getting harder to tell on sight alone which sites are trustworthy. On a Facebook timeline or Google search feed, every story comes prepackaged in the same skin, whether it’s a months-long investigation from The Washington Post or completely fabricated clickbait.

Left, 70News's story in standard format; Right, in AMP

While feed formatting isn’t anything new, platforms like Google AMP, Facebook Instant Articles, and Apple News are also further breaking down the relationship between good design and credibility. In a platform world, all publishers end up looking more similar than different. That makes separating the real from the fake even harder.

On Google’s search page, the false article about Trump’s popular vote win — published on a website with the generic URL "70news.wordpress.com" — looks just like a piece from The New York Times or Bloomberg. It has the bare basics of a headline, prominent thumbnail image, publish date, and source. Clicking through to the story on a mobile browser, as the majority of US Google searchers would, brings up the post-Web 2.0 standard: boxes of well-proportioned text in an empty white field with branding at the top and bottom. It looks pretty normal, though odd capitalizations and bolding hint that something might be off.

Go to 70news.wordpress.com on a desktop browser, however, and you’ll find a generic WordPress blog that features a stock photo of a pool for a header, static images of flowers in the sidebar, and a default favicon. The site boasts a grand total of 594 fans on Facebook. In short, not credible or mainstream by any definition.

70News desktop wide 3

70News homepage on desktop

The difference between the two is the result of AMP, an HTML framework that Google created to make mobile pages that load faster. (It also likely caused the 70news piece to be aggregated into a "top news" carousel.) AMP has the side effect of making mobile websites look a little more homogenous, narrowing down the details that publishers can customize, at least without aggressive tweaks. In a small way, the system normalizes and standardizes designs like that of 70news that otherwise would look obviously askew, tacitly accelerating traffic to questionable sites and further confusing readers who haven’t learned to discriminate.

"It’s hard to make a site look like yours in an AMP format."

Websites that operate on these homogenizing platforms, whether they offer real news or fake, exist under the same digital gloss no matter their production budget, which presents a problem for upscale publishers wanting to stand out. "It’s hard to make a site look like yours in an AMP format," About.com CEO Neil Vogel, told Digiday in October. "You can change the header, you can change the fonts, but it’s not yours."

Over centuries, print media developed a visual language of credibility that became second nature to most readers: crisp type and clean, uninterrupted columns communicate integrity, while exaggerated images, messy layouts, and goofy text inspire doubt. On a physical newsstand, it’s still easy to tell the National Enquirer from, say, The Atlantic. Online, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two.

When most web traffic flowed through browsers, well-built and constantly updated homepages provided a signal that what you were reading was legitimate. Social media has changed that, too. These days, social media drives a large percentage of readers to publications (30 percent is a consistently cited number). Sure, the nytimes.com homepage still looks much more authoritative than the conservative aggregator usasupreme.com, for example. But clicking out from a post on a Facebook feed, fewer readers even make it to the homepage, much less notice the visual difference.

Left, a Liberty Viral story in standard format; Right, in Facebook's Instant Articles

Over the last several years, upscale publishers that don’t draw a large percentage of revenue from banner display advertising, like Medium and Vice News, have embraced an extreme minimalist style that features text and blank white space above all else — the better to differentiate themselves from the noise of fake news and chum boxes. This visual austerity is the new mark of an upscale publisher.

Yet questionable outlets are starting to adopt these very same aesthetics of reliability, albeit on a delay of several years. Sites like Civic Tribune and the satirical National Report look no worse than The Huffington Post or Drudge Report, which are seen as legitimate publishers, more or less. Some, like the semi-satirical Real News Right Now, have even echoed the clean, gridded layout and decisive typography of sites like Digg and the defunct Atlantic Wire, an aesthetic that once suggested value-added aggregation.

That means readers have to pay even more attention to figure out who to trust. "There are some visual cues that you’re on a site that may need further examination," says Melissa Zimdars, a professor of communication at Merrimack College who created a running list of news sites that publish satirical, false, or otherwise questionable information. "The first is just bad design, such as the screen being very cluttered and busy. These websites also tend to contain obviously Photoshopped pictures, and their articles and headlines frequently use all caps to emphasize certain words." Or every word, as the case may be.

Ultimately, fake news sites are ugly because they don’t need to look good

Other visual quirks of fake news websites include often repeating the same story multiple times down the homepage; prestige publishers would never waste the real estate, but the trick makes sites’ output seem larger. The sites also list vague topic sections at the top like "entertainment," "politics," and "motorcycles," with little regard to an overall direction or voice. The articles are published with generic stock photos. And of course, there are long sidebars of titillating sponsored stories about sex, weight-loss, celebrities, bad plastic surgery, cars, or all of the above, often festooned with weirdly compelling gross-out images.

Zimdars also suggests looking for consistent spelling, grammar, and formatting, the hallmarks of the AP Style Guide that survive the visual stylization of AMP or Instant Articles. But the internet will never be as well copyedited as print, fake news or not. Establishing a blacklist of sites can only go so far; there has to be active, persistent analysis on the part of the reader. "Some of the sites on the resource are already down and new ones pop up every day," Zimdars says.

For a seasoned internet user, it’s still fairly easy to tell good publications from bad when looking at a homepage. Ultimately, fake news sites are ugly because they don’t need to look good. All that matters is the traffic, providing page views to offer up to advertisers. In fact, making the site more presentable might be worse for business. "I’ve run layouts where there was a higher design aesthetic, less ads, and more widgets," says Cyrus Massoumi, the founder of Mr. Conservative, a hyper-partisan site with 2.2 million Facebook fans that a BuzzFeed News investigation recently called out as a leading example of "tilted" news. The less overwhelming designs "didn’t yield any difference in fundamental traffic performance — time on site, page views, etc.," Massoumi adds. Revenue didn’t outweigh the redesign labor.

You don’t have to know a whole lot about journalism to discern between fake and real news. There are a series of visual cues that can help any reader determine trustworthiness. Melissa Zimdars, professor of communications at Merrimack College, helped us compile a list of tips.

Domain names

If the URL is a variation of a well-known publication, looks like a blog, or has ".com.co" in the URL, consider it suspect.

70News URL

abc fake news url

ALL CAPS, mispellings, Sensational headlines!

Even legitimate sites are guilty of these, but if a site has all three, you're in trouble.

Caps image fake news

NBC Fake News

Shady authors

The same author for every post, or no author listed at all. Both are a bad sign.

fake news same author

Repetition

If the same article conspicuously appears multiple times, watch out.

Fake news multiple time

- Zoya Teirstein

Mr. Conservative currently sports Google AdSense ads and sponsored stories from a service called Revcontent, social media share buttons under every story thumbnail, and an inexplicable array of links to articles about violent acts committed by children. It’s "much more advertising than I would like," Massoumi says.

But what happens when questionable news sources enter the walled and manicured gardens of Google, Facebook, and Apple’s proprietary publishing systems? An increasing volume of readers experience articles through these mobile masks. AMP now represents 10 to 15 percent of publisher search traffic, according to an October Define Media report. Facebook claims that Instant Articles content gets more traffic and deeper engagement than regular posts, with a 20 percent increase in average read time and a 30 percent higher share rate (those numbers are slightly suspect given Facebook’s control over exposure and its habit of misreporting data).

Even more so than AMP, Facebook Instant Articles radically transform a story’s visual presentation. Take, for instance, a site like the Libertarian-slanted Liberty Viral and its companion site The Libertarian Republic. Whereas hyper-partisan publisher The Libertarian Republic’s homepage is plastered with full-bleed images, pop-up menus, and AdSense ads, a Liberty Viral story shared on its Facebook page, delivered through IA, appears on mobile as a glowing beacon of web design, with dynamic images, pleasant serif typography (reminiscent of the upmarket web product Typekit), and a Timesian byline and date, not to mention an absence of distracting social media share buttons.

For now, most so-called fake news outlets have yet to widely adopt AMP or Facebook IA. Mr. Conservative hasn’t made use of Instant Articles because "the revenue was garbage," Massoumi says. He’s more confident about Facebook selling ads on video, and has partnerships lined up for whenever the spigot gets turned on.

Yet both Facebook and Google are bullish on attracting publishers to their new systems. AMP’s 2017 plans include greater interactivity and offline support, while Facebook IA brags that it is "now open to all publishers" on its homepage.

When enormous, undiscerning platforms like the two tech giants hoover up content, they disguise it, no matter the source. It doesn’t have to be that way. Yet neither Google nor Facebook have outlined specific policies for AMP or IA in terms of barring questionable publishers from adopting what we once thought of as the appearance of solid journalism. When asked if there was a concern that fake news sites use IA, Facebook declined to comment, and a Google representative speaking on background stressed AMP’s open-source framework nature: it is what you make of it.

In effect, both could use their publishing systems as a discretionary wall between credible and questionable sources, offering their premium products only to trusted publications and discouraging traffic to fake news. Some differentiation is beginning to happen. Google and Facebook have already started banning sites with misleading information from their ad networks; banning them from AMP and IA might be another step in the right direction. Facebook is mulling a Collections feature that would highlight only curated publishers, according to Business Insider, de-emphasizing viral clickbait. These moves would push the companies toward the direction of Snapchat, which extensively vets publishers in its Discover feature and fact-checks stories that are created internally, BuzzFeed reports.

Limiting access only to trusted partners might create a higher barrier to entry for smaller publishers, meaning less immediate exposure. But Google News already maintains a strong, diverse list, and if Facebook can’t stomach the idea of having a human editorial staff, it seems like a minor step to take that could potentially slow the spread of fake news.

Without the platforms taking responsibility for what appears in their premium layouts, however, readers are left with the necessity of divining from headline format and copyediting alone if a publisher is pushing a legitimate story or promulgating an outright lie. It’s a low barrier, and yet one readers many still seem to be unaware of. By design, social networks and search engines have taught us to consume what they provide as fact. Their businesses are contingent on the content being attractive enough to sell ads, so we are encouraged to go on clicking and believing long after we should have stopped.

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