With online disinformation threatening social and political stability, internet users need easy ways to identify falsehoods. During a global pandemic, the stakes couldn’t be higher. As state and non-state actors perpetuate myths about the efficacy of COVID-19 mitigation measures and vaccine safety, fake news is now a threat to public health.
The problem is particularly acute in the Czech Republic, where Russia has long seeded the information space with pro-Kremlin, anti-EU rhetoric (the digital successor to the Soviet Union’s physical occupation of Czechoslovakia during the Cold War). The frequency of these lies has only accelerated during the coronavirus crisis, and is partly to blame for Czech’s distrust of government control measures.
To raise public awareness of the disinformation threat, and to protect people from the dangers of online manipulation in the Czech internet space, Semantic Visions began exploring ways to help tech companies highlight deliberately deceptive content. The goal was to give internet users a fighting chance in the disinformation war.
In mid-2019, we approached Seznam, one of the largest search-engine providers in the Czech Republic (second only to Google), with a simple pitch: let us help you help your customers browse safely. Unlike other global search engines that put profits ahead of responsible business, Seznam was eager to engage.
Seznam has long been committed to cleaning up the Czech digital landscape. In 2018, the company began steering its clients away from placing ads on websites listed by Konspiratori.sk as purveyors of falsehoods. Then in December 2020, the company agreed to label deceptive content in search results. To facilitate this commitment, Semantic Visions traced the origins of online falsehoods using Big Data semantics, and provided Seznam with our list of dangerous websites. The tech company then incorporated these and other datasets into its search algorithm.
Now when a user uses search.seznam.cz, disinformation is labeled. For instance, when the term “Russia” is searched, the website Sputnik News is listed in the results, along with a warning: “Pay attention to this content.” By clicking read more, readers are provided with disclaimers about why they should be careful when consuming the content.
Seznam’s decision to mark disinformation using data from Semantic Visions is having a positive effect on content consumption, company officials say. While precise statistics are unavailable, what is clear is that Seznam is fast becoming an industry leader in tackling disinformation via ethical search curation.
“Misinformation has become an everyday part of Internet content, and the average user may no longer be sure what to believe,” says Seznam product manager Tomáš Peroutka. “That’s why we decided to start raising awareness of the most common conspiracy theories and identifying the sites that are most involved in spreading them in search results.”
Ondřej Procházka, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Seznam.cz, says the goal of working with independent organizations like Semantic Visions is to provide an unbiased and expert evaluation of information reliability. Ultimately, he says, “It’s up to each user to decide how to deal with the information their search returns.”
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