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 late Sunday.
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 that person had followed Democratic pages on social media. Authorities have identified the gunman as a 64-year-old Nevada man.
The 4chan board posts were quickly picked up and magnified by The Gateway Pundit, a far-right website that has repeatedly misidentified attackers and continues to promote debunked conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama’s birthplace, among other misinformation.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, another Gateway Pundit article jumped to the top of Facebook’s “crisis response” page.
An NBC report is barely visible in second place. This is shit news judgment, and the algorithms responsible should resign. pic.twitter.com/0DCbI3BsB7
— Rob Pegoraro (@robpegoraro) October 2, 2017
‘A good demonstration of the magnitude of the challenge that these companies are facing’
That was just one of several false bits of information circulating on social media.
BuzzFeed News compiled a list on Monday morning of viral tweets about supposed missing people, 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 that suggested the festival was “more like the kind of target a left-wing nutjob would choose.”
And other users like the far-right provocateur Laura Loomer went viral on Twitter stoking speculation that Islamic terror groups were responsible for the shooting. Though ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement, it did not provide evidence, and the FBI on Monday said there was no evidence that the shooter had any connection to international terrorist groups.
— Scott with coffee ???? (@firescotch) October 2, 2017
The far-right website Breitbart News retweeted people calling for gun control in the wake of the shooting, most likely attempting to emphasize reports that the shooter may have used a difficult-to-obtain automatic weapon. Authorities have not announced the type of weapons the shooter used.
The tech platforms said they were working to remove the false stories when they saw them.
In a statement to Business Insider, a Google representative said the link to 4chan was algorithmically removed within several hours of it appearing in search results for some users who googled the name of the man incorrectly identified as the shooter. 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,” the representative said. “Within hours, the 4chan story was algorithmically replaced by relevant results.
They added: “This should not have appeared for any queries, and we’ll continue to make algorithmic improvements to prevent this from happening in the future.”
Facebook similarly cast the prominence of The Gateway Pundit’s story on the platform as short-lived.
Facebook spox to me on site's listing of a Gateway Pundit story earlier on Crisis Response page pic.twitter.com/aaaIB2GvMS
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) October 2, 2017
Twitter said it was aware of the various stories circulating on its platform.
“We are aware of this issue and are proactively taking action on content that violates our terms of service,” a representative told Business Insider.
The platforms face growing criticism that trolls and malicious foreign operatives have used them to spread misinformation for political purposes.
Last month, Facebook announced it would release previously undisclosed Russia-linked political ads to congressional and federal investigators, and that it would continue to investigate how its platform was used during the 2016 US presidential campaign to spread political information.
Some lawmakers, particularly Democrats, have become increasingly concerned about the ability of 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 representative for Sen. Mark Warner told Business Insider when asked about the spread of misinformation about the shooting in Las Vegas.
Many critics on social media blasted Google and Facebook for spreading misinformation:
Great job by Facebook here showing me a Gateway Pundit link while I'm checking to see if my friends are alive pic.twitter.com/HD5OTTz9lM
— Travis Hughes (@TravisSBN) October 2, 2017
The major tech companies are profiting off of misinformation. https://t.co/l9Z3KpfdF1
— ଅନିଲ ଦାଶ (@anildash) October 2, 2017
We’ll say it again:
Algorithms should not be deciding where we head as a country. https://t.co/XaoAxaKKOx
— Sleeping Giants (@slpng_giants) October 2, 2017
Tell me more about how these companies are doing their best to grapple with the spread of toxic misinformation https://t.co/R7roVARDJq
— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) October 2, 2017