Fake news about the Las Vegas shooting spread wildly on Facebook, Google, and Twitter
Facebook, Google, and Twitter have spent the past several weeks insisting they are committed to stopping the spread of misinformation and malicious speech on their platforms.
But early on Monday, viral fake news stories ricocheted across the platforms and to the top of Google's search algorithm — this time about the deadly mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas.
A 4chan message board about the Las Vegas shooting rocketed to the top of Google's Top Stories, a tool distinct from Google News, which is vetted by humans.
Users on the board incorrectly identified the shooter. Many far-right users said the incorrect shooter had followed Democratic pages on social media.
The story was quickly picked up and magnified by far-right conspiracy outlet the Gateway Pundit, a website that has repeatedly misidentified attackers and continues to promote debunked conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama's birthplace, among other fake stories.
Some observers quickly said the story — titled "Las Vegas Shooter Reportedly a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org, and Associated with Anti-Trump Army" — was incorrect, but not before it began to go viral in its own right.
While the Gateway Pundit removed the story, the site's White House correspondent Lucian Wintrich criticized and mocked reporters who inquired about how the site published the piece.
And after posting its original story, another Gateway Pundit article algorithmically jumped to the top of Facebook's "crisis response" page.
'A good demonstration of the magnitude of the challenge that these companies are facing'
That was just one of a several false bits of information circulating on social media.
BuzzFeed News compiled a list Monday morning of viral tweets about supposed missing individuals, some of which were obviously fake but circulated nonetheless.
On its "safety check" page, Facebook linked to a story on a self-proclaimed alt-right blog, which suggested that the concert was "more like the kind of target a left-wing nutjob would choose."
And other users like far-right provocateur Laura Loomer went viral on Twitter stoking speculation that Islamic terror groups were responsible for the shooting. The FBI said Monday that there is no evidence suggesting any connection to international terrorist groups — ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, but did not provide evidence.
The far-right website Breitbart News retweeted individuals calling for gun control in the wake of the shooting, likely attempting to emphasize reports that the shooter may have used an already difficult-to-obtain automatic weapon, Authorities have not announced the type of weapons the shooter used.
The tech platforms themselves said they were working to remove the false stories when they saw them.
In a statement to Business Insider, a Google spokesperson said the link to 4chan was algorithmically removed within several hours of it appearing in search results for some users. The platform also pledged to improve the algorithm to prevent spreading misinformation in the future.
"Unfortunately, early this morning we were briefly surfacing an inaccurate 4chan website in our Search results for a small number of queries," a Google spokesperson said. "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," the spokesperson said.
Facebook similarly cast the prominence of the Gateway Pundit's story as short-lived.
Twitter said it was aware of the various stories circulating on its site.
"We are aware of this issue and are proactively taking action on content that violates our terms of service," a spokesperson told Business Insider.
The promotion of false stories came after months of growing criticism for the platforms, as trolls and malicious foreign operatives have used the platforms to quickly spread misinformation for political purposes.
Last month, Facebook announced that it would release previously undisclosed Russia-linked political ads to congressional and federal investigators and would continue to investigate how its platform was used during the 2016 presidential campaign to spread political information.
Some lawmakers, particularly Democrats, have become increasingly concerned about the ability for tech platforms be unwittingly or purposefully co-opted into perpetuating fake news.
"This is a good demonstration of the magnitude of the challenge that these companies are facing in combating fake news and misinformation on their platforms," a spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner told Business Insider when asked about the spread of misinformation about Las Vegas.
Many critics on social media blasted Google and Facebook for spreading misinformation:
- Twitter users spreading fake news targeted swing states in the run-up to Election Day
- Russia's disinformation campaign on Facebook could have been more widespread than we knew
- Trump suggests collusion between 'anti-Trump' Facebook and media giants