Following a surge in propaganda coinciding with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the VPN provider Surfshark recently released a new fake news warning feature for its browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox.
At the time, Surfshark CEO Vytautas Kaziukonis explained why the company decided to release the feature in a press release, saying:
“The 21st century has shown that information might be sharper than the sword. It’s evident that today’s disinformation campaigns aim to distract, confuse, manipulate, and sow division, discord, and uncertainty in the community. Keeping in mind the intensifying propaganda, we decided to release a feature that would allow people to identify fake news websites easily.”
Surfshark's now defunct fake news warning feature would detect specific URLs from a list of untrustworthy websites taken from the site propornot.com reviewed by the the company's security experts. Sites known for spreading fake news were highlighted with a “YYY” symbol in Google and other search engines. While the feature was enabled by default, Surfshark users were able to toggle it off under the “VPN settings” menu in the company's browser extension.
Suspending its fake news feature
Although Surfshark's intentions were good, the company explained in a post on Twitter that “the topic is more nuanced that initially thought” when it announced that it would be temporarily suspending its fake news notification feature only a few days after its launch.
The problem with the feature is that in addition to being overwhelming for some users, it identified far too many sites as being a source of disinformation. Some of the sites that had a “YYY” next to them on Google's search results page included Drudge Report, Ron Paul's website, the alternative video platform BitChute and even WikiLeaks.
While consumers rely on VPN services to protect their privacy online and to get around geo-blocking, many of the users that responded to a separate post on Twitter by BitChute took issue with Surfshark limiting freedom of expression online. At the same time, BitChute pointed out that several major news stories in the last year were considered 'misinformation' before being revealed to be true.
Despite the fact that Surfshark has said that it would temporarily suspend the feature, its original blog post announcing its fake news notifications has been removed from its site. We'll have to wait and see as to whether or not the company decides to bring it back though based on the criticism the feature faced online, it likely won't be returning anytime soon.