In the wake of what is now the worst mass-shooting in U.S. history, thousands of people turning to social media for information on the unfolding investigation earlier this morning would have found many of the top posts on most of the major websites to be hot garbage.
Letting an algorithm cull links from the sewer of internet commentary, and then distributing that to millions of people, is a losing game. It’s another sign of how Facebook and the rest continue to abdicate responsibility.
Google and the social media sites say they’re working on improving their hit rate for better quality news sources, but today’s spread in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting shows just how much more work they have to do.
Over the course of the morning, Facebook’s “Safety Check” page included updates on the shooting from a far right wing blogger who had accused the shooter of being a “left wing loon”. The top post on the site then moved to feature a clickbait video from a news aggregation service, MyTVToday, before finally settling on reports from local and national news outlets.
Facebook wasn’t alone in recirculating conjecture and outright lies on its marquee pages. One of the rumors that had been circulating on the site 4Chan which misidentified the shooter as a man named Geary Danley appeared in Google’s top stories widget (as Buzzfeed and Bloomberg reported).
Google released the following statement to Bloomberg and The New York Times (we’ve also reached out for comment):
“Unfortunately, early this morning we were briefly surfacing an inaccurate 4chan website in our Search results for a small number of queries. 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 algorithms that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook use to determine what stories to display have been making headlines themselves, as more attention is paid to the information they’re distributing.
The hoaxes listed by Buzzfeed that showed up on Twitter alone should be enough to convince @Jack that something needs to be done about the trolls willfully setting dumpster fires in the middle of the service’s vaunted news stream.
It’s a legitimate question to ask about how sources like 4Chan would even be considered a viable outlet to source information from for breaking news. And, indeed, some reporters are already asking it.
Google, Twitter and Facebook are under the microscope already for their response to the Russian hacking scandal currently being investigated by Congress. And this latest misstep in their treatment of a story that has shaken the country, with so many dead and injured, and so much still unknown, just underscores how problematic their reliance on software can be — and the real world consequences that it can have.
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