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Maybe Facebook, Google just need to stop calling fake news 'news'

Commentary: The internet has a problem with fake news. Here's an easy fix.

In the words of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, "Half of what you read on the internet is not true."

That's the problem when you give billions of people access to a global forum where they can pretty much post whatever they want. You never know if what you're reading is true, which is why we choose sites we think offer legitimate news. Maybe you wonder if that story about a one-eyed baby has been fact checked, maybe you don't. You shouldn't have to, since we all expect what we read on our trusted news sites to actually be true.

So now we have Facebook and Google being called out for showcasing "fake news" stories. It's a big deal because nearly 45 percent of US adults say they rely on the world's largest social network and world's largest search engine for news, even though they're not traditional "media" companies.

That last part is important.

John Greim, LightRocket via Getty Images

Most media companies have some rules on fact checking. CNET's reporters and reviewers must verify information they're writing and then back that up by linking to original source material like company press releases, videos and websites.

But there are plenty of other sites that simply run content collected from across the internet and argue they don't need to check because they didn't write it. They're just content distributors. They're just aggregators.

That's certainly how Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed to deflect Facebook's role in promoting and sharing fake news that critics say helped Donald Trump win the election. Like this one about the supposed murder-suicide of an FBI agent investigating Clinton's leaked emails (not true). Or the one claiming Pope Francis endorsed Trump (also not true).

The idea that Facebook could even sway the election is "crazy," Zuckerberg argued because less than 1 percent of all the shared posts are fake. But the math doesn't add up. Given that 1.2 billion people use the social media site daily, about 12 million see at least one fake news story a day, Airbnb's director of research (and former Facebooker) points out in a post. Can you imagine if The New York Times or the Guardian made up 1 percent of their stories, he says.

No, I can't actually.

Zuckerberg said Facebook isn't a media company, so it's really not its job to ferret out fake news. But Facebook does need to "proceed very carefully" in taking on a role where it's expected to identify "truth." (Quotes around truth are his.)

"While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted. An even greater volume of stories express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual," Zuckerberg said in a post on Saturday.

"I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves."

Earlier this week, we learned Google had prominently placed a fake news story about election results in the search engine's widely read news section. Contrary to what you might have read on Google, Trump didn't win the popular vote -- at least not according to the latest official count.

Google, which uses an algorithm to vet news sources, owned up to making a mistake. "The goal of Search is to provide the most relevant and useful results for our users," a Google spokeswoman said Monday. "We clearly didn't get it right, but we are continually working to improve our algorithms."

Meanwhile, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told the BBC, "There should just be no situation where fake news gets distributed, so we are all for doing better here."

He didn't say how.

Media and tech experts have offered up a few solutions for Facebook and Google over the past few days. They include everything from being more open about how their algorithms highlight stories (and potentially making it easier for bad actors to game the results) to tagging stories that have been called out as hoaxes.

I have my own idea.

Hey, Facebook and Google, why don't you set up editorial boards with respected journalists reviewing your services and suggesting ways to improve them? All the mass layoffs in media mean it's a good time for talent acquisition.

I also have an even simpler solution. How about Facebook and Google stop calling their news feeds "news"? Google could maybe rebrand "Google News" as "Articles & Other Miscellany" or "Stories Lots of People Are Reading."

And instead of News Feed, Facebook might call it "Stuff from the Internet," "What S/He Said," or "Facebook's Believe It Or Not -- Your Choice."

Or maybe just "Stories That Won't Affect an Election."

The winking face emoji is optional.

Facebook and Google can't ignore their role in distributing deliberately false information to millions of people. A group of Facebook employees has reportedly set up a task force to discuss ways to fight the problem. Both companies on Monday said they won't let fake news sites use their ad-selling software anymore. That sounds noble until you remember they're both ad-funded services and advertisers don't want their brands associated with ugly, questionable content.

For now, remember what Lincoln said. I can't say it any better than that.