Victims were still bleeding out below the Vegas sniper’s deadly perch when the first noxious lies, disguised as “news,” began circulating through the internet.
The anonymous message site 4chan, infamous for deliberately disseminating misinformation, falsely pinned the Sunday night massacre on a completely innocent individual — and linked the attack to a made-up Trump-hating liberal agenda.
Those falsehoods were picked up by Google’s “top stories” module and gained even more traction after other sites republished them. Facebook’s official “safety check” page for the shooting prominently displayed a post from Alt-Right News Blogspot, which identified the gunman as a “Trump-hating Rachel Maddox fan.”
More inaccurate reports followed, among them that the FBI had already linked the shooter to the Islamic State and that the mainstream media was concealing that he was a recent convert to Islam.
As Americans grappled with the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the internet’s hateful troublemakers and trolls were hellbent on using the tragedy to further divide the nation.
The response from Google and Facebook? They just let it happen, hosting fake news stories about the still-developing events in Las Vegas right next to legitimate reports from major news organizations.
These bold, innovative digital giants, with their superior tools for distributing news and information, again have turned timid when it comes to accountability — and more important, solutions — to thwart the spreading of lies.
As two-thirds of American adults get news from social media, the honest vetting and presentation of information by these companies is mandatory. Even when Google or Facebook takes down bad information, it’s already been read and spread by millions of people.
The powerful platforms’ attempts to hide behind weak excuses like “we’re just a tech company” or “it’s all about the algorithms” don’t cut it. The solution is not to improve the computers’ instructions but rather to add some experienced, intelligent humans into the decision-making.
Prior to the damaging lies out of Las Vegas, digital operations were already feeling heat over whether their sites influenced the last presidential election.
Facebook and Twitter agreed Wednesday to participate in an open congressional hearing Nov. 1 related to how foreign parties may have leveraged their platforms in the 2016 vote. Google has also been asked to attend.
At one point, Facebook employed news editors to work on its “trending topics” list, but after accusations of bias, Mark Zuckerberg’s company automated the process. That opened the door to fake news poisoning the digital ecosystem.
The day after the Vegas tragedy, Atlantic tech writer Alexis Madrigal made a strong argument for how and why the digital giants must add news experts into the process ASAP.
While it’s impossible for the platforms to catch every instance of fake-news profiteers, Facebook, Google, Twitter and others could at least moderate the most important searches. Especially in the cases of rare breaking news that’s likely to confound the computers.
News consumers deserve better than what they’re getting from companies that have become the most powerful information gatekeepers in the world. Google and Facebook can afford to do this work right.