The fight against fake news is being fought on many fronts in homes and offices across America, but companies like Facebook and Google have been reluctant to issue any sort of explicit, top-down editorial enjoinments about what can and cannot be posted on their platforms. This is understandable — corporations are loath to enter the politically tricky territory of determining the legitimacy of a given news outlet.
But as we enter a fraught period of American life, it’s important to make sure you (and your friends and relatives) can at least avoid being snookered by hoax, satire, fake, and just plain incompetent news sites. For people who might not be the most media-literate, here’s a handy browser extension I put together this afternoon, based on media studies professor Melissa Zimdars’s list of unreliable or misleading websites. It works like this: If you visit a URL known for producing non-news in news-like packages, you get a pop-up alert warning you. That’s it!
(Note: Zimdar’s list is expansive, and includes everything from popular satire sites to strongly partisan blogs and aggregators to utterly false bottom-feeders. It’s already been edited to remove some sites that might have been unfairly brought up in the dragnet, and we’re trying to update the extension as the list itself is updated. Remember, the extension doesn’t block the sites themselves, just offers a small reminder and warning. Better safe than sorry!)
For now it’s only a Chrome browser extension and, well, I made this in about an hour or so, so it’s about the most barebones it could possibly be.
But that just means there’s room for improvement! The biggest issue is that this extension only works on the actual domains hosting fake news, which means you need to visit the pages to get a warning. A more sophisticated and useful version would flag (and maybe even block) the sites as they’re linked to in various social feeds, but that’s a much more cumbersome project requiring more time, and frankly, coding knowledge, than I have. That being said, if you’re technically minded, you can help out: The source code is freely available on Github, so you can add to it (or rewrite it completely after you see how bad I am at coding), or port it to other browsers like Safari and Firefox.
Still, this (barely) working proof-of-concept is mostly to show that readers don’t need to necessarily sit around and wait for Facebook, Google, Twitter and the other large platforms to fix things. Install it yourself today, and surreptitiously install it on your relatives’ computers next week at Thanksgiving!