Millions of people turned to Facebook, Twitter, and Google early Monday morning to find out what was happening in the hours after Stephen Paddock opened fire on concertgoers from the windows of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
And as it has done so frequently during similar events in recent memory, the social media giants fed readers false or misleading information at breakneck speed. As of the time of publication, officials had confirmed that at least 58 people were killed and 515 more injured in the Monday morning attack in Las Vegas, and that Paddock did not appear to have a political motive. But some users, getting their information via digital platforms, might have read that Paddock was a far-left activist who committed the shooting out of hatred for Donald Trump.
Google, for several hours, surfaced a link to a thread on the message board 4chan, that falsely claimed to identify the shooter as Geary Danley, an ex-husband of Paddock’s girlfriend who had liked a few left-leaning Facebook pages. 4chan is a well-known hub for circulating fake information and conspiracy theories after mass shootings and other terror attacks. Nevertheless, there it was promoted by Google News for users searching for “Geary Danley” — an algorithmic error that the company says it plans to address.
“Within hours, the 4chan story was algorithmically replaced by relevant results. This should not have appeared for any queries, and we’ll continue to make algorithmic improvements to prevent this from happening in the future,” said a Google spokesperson.
Facebook’s “safety check” feature, meanwhile, surfaced false information from flimsy sources such as “alt-right-news.blogspot.com,” the right-wing “Gateway Pundit” blog, and spammy links attempting to trick people into donating to a bitcoin wallet. Facebook told CNN that a link to the Gateway Pundit post was spotted and removed, but that “its removal was delayed by a few minutes.”
YouTube, which is owned by Google, still does not appear to be monitoring or de-ranking videos with misleading or false claims in their titles. A video calling Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock an “Anti Trump Far Left Activist” was the #2 search result for “Stephen Paddock” on YouTube as of early Monday afternoon.
“When it comes to news, we have thousands of news publishers that present a variety of viewpoints available on our news channel, www.youtube.com/news,” said a YouTube spokesperson in a statement. “When a major event happens, these same news sources are presented on the YouTube home page under breaking news and featured in search results.”
And Twitter, which relies mostly on a raw feed instead of an algorithm to give users content, frequently serves as a nexus for passing around fake news during a crisis. Accounts falsely claimed that comedian Sam Hyde was behind the attack (this is a recurring prank), or that soccer star Mehsut Özil and porn star Johnny Sins were among the victims, as documented by BuzzFeed News. “We are reviewing and removing content that violates our rules – both proactively and through reports,” said Twitter spokesperson Liz Kelley in an email.
Tech companies have vowed to better tackle the spread of false and misleading breaking news, which they largely manage through algorithms instead of human curators. So far, Silicon Valley has yet to make significant progress.