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Science News: Through the eyes of giants: Could Google solve the fake science problem?

– K.R., Editor

Although tech giants still enjoy a favorable reputation among the general public, exposure to recent scandals, chiefly surrounding the promotion of fake news, means that companies like Google and Facebook are now facing tremendous scrutiny from governments and lawmakers. Could increased standards of corporate responsibility at these companies help combat the threat posed by fake science and perhaps even lead to industry-wide changes in academic publishing? Tech giants are now facing pressure to take a heavier hand when it comes to curating their content, and the steps required of these companies in the coming years could transform the liberal models through which science is currently disseminated.

Google made its first foray into the academic publishing world in 2004 with its academic search engine Google Scholar. Although widely acclaimed for making research visible and accessible, Google Scholar has been criticized for promoting popular science at the expense of hard research and even displaying fake science in search results. On Facebook, science-related pages from the official National Geographic page to original pages like IFLScience have attracted millions of followers by focusing on flashy visuals and catchy headlines, with actual scientific information being relatively scarce. However, blatantly fake and harmful science pages have also emerged with one recent example advocating a cabbage concoction as an elixir that reverses aging, cures cancer, and turns gay people straight. This “juice” elixir supposedly acts by purging the body of ailments in explosive bursts of diarrhea and is one of many fake science pages with a Facebook following numbering in the thousands.

Both Google and Facebook have traditionally shied away from accepting the responsibilities that come with editorial decision making, but things are changing. In recent years, courts have made decisions advising tech companies that either actively or passively control information consumed by the general public that great power must be accompanied with great responsibility. In terms of the science that the average person accesses through their platforms, there is a problem that clearly needs to be addressed. British polymath Dick Taverne has described the spread of fake science as “an undercurrent of irrationality that threatens science-dependent progress, and even the civilized basis of our democracy.” Given that search engines essentially immortalize all purported science including retracted articles and those with faulty methodology, they surely bear some of the responsibility.

The idea of a Google-sized solution to the problems that face academic publishing is not new. A few years ago, reports surfaced that Google was developing a new service known as “Google Science” that would launch a number of journals and moderate science content by using a team of "qualified reviewers". The platform would initially operate on an invite-only basis whereby scientists would invite other scientists and thus reduce the likelihood of junk science. Although this project has not materialized, it does suggest the potential for screening academic papers before indexing them in a search engine, in essence creating a “whitelist” of science papers.

As part of an effort to regain public trust in the aftermath of a series of scandals, tech giants are now beginning to focus on the potential harms that can be caused by their products. Google has recently started a crackdown on fake science pages and in February delisted over 140,000 pages from Natural News, a website that frequently publishes articles linking vaccines to autism, fluoridated water to cancer, and reports of climate change to global conspiracies. Both Google and Facebook have recently signed up to the Trust Project, which helps users distinguish reliable sources from misinformation, and both companies have begun to adopt their own fact-checking initiatives. Such efforts are laudable; however, further work needs to be done in this area. Although so far the steps being taken are small, it would appear that the battle against misinformation is starting to turn against the propagators of fake science.

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