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Google Bulletin – yet another contributor to fake news?

February 22, 2018

Google Bulletin – yet another contributor to fake news?

Google recently introduced ‘Bulletin’, a free hyperlocal progressive web app allowing anyone, anywhere, to share news stories publicly straight from their phone.

Starting out as just an idea only 18 months ago, it is now currently available to only those in select cities within the US states of Tennessee and California.

Sound intriguing? Lets dip into Bulletin a bit more.

“Bulletin is an app for contributing hyperlocal stories about your community, for your community, right from your phone. Bulletin makes it effortless to put a spotlight on inspiring stories that aren’t being told” Google

From this quote, it seems that Google wants to give everyone the opportunity to become a journalist, should they wish to or have the ability to share important news with the world. Essentially, Bulletin allows users to post stories as and when they happen in a quick and simple way, without the need to have their own platform to broadcast these stories on (i.e. their own website, or blog).

What else do we know about Bulletin?

Google had a secret Bulletin launch presentation for a select group of people in the US. Here is the video:

Within this presentation, there is a big emphasis on the fact that many stories are never shared publicly, and that a solution is needed to allow these stories to be broadcast to the community without the need for a blog or a website.

In other words, Google wants Bulletin to be that “effortless” solution.

Google’s representative also touches on who can create a Bulletin story. Essentially, anyone will be able to do this provided they are able to:

  • Text from their phone
  • Take a photo on their phone
  • Shoot a video on their phone

Providing they meet this criteria, a user will then be able to create a public “presence” on the web, and start what Google describes as ‘enriching the public web for local content’.

How are Bulletin stories created?

These are the steps a user needs to follow in order to create their Bulletin story:

  • Start with either text, photo or video (when taken/written this is immediately a public document on the web).
  • Share it to Bulletin.
  • The post then behaves like a “live” story, meaning the user can go back and add to it if there is more to say, whether that be more text, imagery or video.
  • Other users should be able to find the story via the search engine. They don’t even have to know about Bulletin to be able to access it.
  • A permanent document on the web will be created, which local content publishers can also use to provide credit to the Bulletin creator.
  • This page’s web address can be shared on social media, as well as email and messaging services.
  • If the creator decides they don’t want the story on there anymore, they themselves are the only ones that can take it down.
  • Analytics allows the creator to see how many times the document has been viewed; whether by social media, text, email etc.
  • When a user creates their first story they will then have their own profile page which include links to all of their own contributions.

The Google representative goes on to say how the majority of readers of stories published via Bulletin will never know that Bulletin actually exists. This means that readership won’t just be confined to the creators of that content, which is the issue with other hyperlocal apps.

Is this good news?…or is it fake?

Well…let’s look at that quote from Google again:

“Bulletin is an app for contributing hyperlocal stories about your community, for your community, right from your phone. Bulletin makes it effortless to put a spotlight on inspiring stories that aren’t being told” Google

So, in other words, it sounds like Google is making it totally effortless to create a news story. For anyone to create a news story.

How did fake news start to happen again? Oh yes, it was people effortlessly creating news stories that didn’t have the slightest bit of truth.

Essentially, that is the risk here. The only stage where Google implements any sort of ‘approval’ process for Bulletin is when new user profiles are created. We don’t know if this is just for the initial trial stage or not, though it seems with their stance towards public journalism and making it effortless for users to create stories, they could have shot themselves in the foot.

It’s all very well promoting the benefits of public journalism, concentrating on community and allowing decent, useful stories be transmitted to others. But what does Google do when this is exploited?

From the current fake news epidemic, we know that there are plenty of people looking to spread mistruths around the internet.

Remember in 2008 when a citizen journalist wrote that Steve Jobs had a heart attack? The release of this story into the public domain instantly caused Apple’s stocks to fall.

In India fake news can have deadly consequences! Some stories here are known to have caused riots and grievous bodily harm to those mentioned in the fake news story.

So what are Google doing about it?

Some guidelines have been released by Google detailing that harassment, hate speech, violent content and sexually explicit content will not be tolerated. Yet there is absolutely nothing touching on misinformation – just “deceptive behaviour”. This means it’s only a breach if you are impersonating a person or organisation.

The concern here is that Bulletin stories will feed directly into Google Search and Google News – sources that millions of people use everyday to get their information from!

Surprisingly, even in the video, the Google representative does not even touch on how this could be moderated, let alone how they are tackling (or would tackle) the problem of fake news that could be generated via Bulletin.

In some ways, it seems like Google don’t want to tarnish their new product straight away by drawing attention to the potential negatives. But is this really the right way to go about it?

What else could this impact?

Google have suffered some really big issues, somewhat famously, with their featured snippets over the last couple of years. Featured snippets of course are used to answer a number of their ‘voice search’ queries via the Google Assistant. In fact, this is something that Public Liaison for Search Danny Sullivan has referred to in a very recent post on Google’s blog.

Things seem to be going in the right direction too; it helps that Danny Sullivan was one of featured snippets’ biggest critics during his previous career within search industry journalism.

So with Google now making a real effort to clean up this area, could similar issues creep in with any potential misinformation within these Bulletin stories? We’d hope that this has already been considered.

 

If not… really Google?!

 

Journalists of major publications may also take issue with Bulletin. For example, is there even a need for traditional journalism if Google is now suggesting anyone can report the news just by having a phone and access to Bulletin?

Or, if users who aren’t journalistically trained are allowed to report news stories to a mass audience, could this even jeopardize the quality of journalism overall?

Google has said that content publishers can also use Bulletin stories for their content, however there does seem to be an issue with authenticity, i.e., surely it’s difficult to know which sources can be trusted above others.

Google is trying to assure established media journalists that Bulletin will not replace their role, and instead that they can use this platform to complement their day to day activities, rather than be a competitor to them.

However, I do think a number of issues will arise as this rolls out, particularly in terms of quality and ensuring users are being shown content from trusted sources first and foremost. One way to combat this could be through a badge system, such as is used for the Local Guides program. Here, the more you participate in the program by leaving reviews, star ratings, answering questions, etc. you can work towards earning a badge which demonstrates to others that you are a top contributor.

It’s also interesting to see that Google has rolled this out after Facebook’s decision to de-emphasise publishers in the news feed and keep friends and family posts prominent. After all of the problems Facebook encountered with this, with Bulletin it seems that Google could now just experience many of the same problems?

In summary;

Google clearly seem to have identified some sort of gap in the market when it comes to local news reporting. However, the concern around how much this could add to the issue of fake news is certainly still there.

No mention of a strategy around how they would deal with any such problems is a definitely a worry.

Unfortunately, as Bulletin is very new, and has not even rolled out country-wide in the US, we cannot tell for certain how it works and the impact it’s going to have.

I’m sure this is an area we will be revisiting many times in the months to come!

 

Naomi is one of Blue Array’s SEO Managers. When she isn’t sifting through Analytics she is busy working on her next craft project, or researching into the next place she wants to travel to.

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