Las Vegas shootings: Cranks and opportunists create fake news, but algorithms spread it

An innocent man was accused of a mass murder, and Google's algorithms amplified the claim. .
An innocent man was accused of a mass murder, and Google's algorithms amplified the claim. . GOOGLE

In the aftermath of any kind of newsworthy tragedy, there’s a sorry parade of opportunists eager to make up alternate realities about it, often before there’s reliable real information.

On Monday, we looked at the case of Geary Danley, an Arkansas grandfather who was accused by right-wing social media of being the Las Vegas shooter. Why? As far as anyone could tell, because he shared a last name with the real killer’s housemate and liked various liberal causes on Facebook.

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Behind a meme of this kind is a glimpse into a culture whose first instinct, on learning of a mass tragedy of this kind, is to find a way of ‘winning’ it as an exercise in ideological point-scoring.

WATCH: Momentum appears to be gaining on Capitol Hill to ban the gun part that may have helped the Las Vegas shooter kill even more people.
Momentum appears to be gaining to ban bump stocks in wake of Las Vegas shooting
Momentum appears to be gaining to ban bump stocks in wake of Las Vegas shooting

Snopes and BuzzFeed have a wide-ranging tour of conspiracy theories and inventions of one sort or another about the massacre, and Alex Jones’s YouTube channel has, to date, no fewer than 141 videos about Las Vegas, several with over 100,000 and one with over a million.

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A brief tour: the shootings were connected to ISIS, or perhaps Antifa; it was an attack on conservatives; there were many more gunmen; there’s definitely a coverup; the attack is a ‘false flag‘ (Jones has reliably called every attack, massacre or tragedy going back to 9/11 a ‘false flag’.)  If you take the time to classify them, there are probably half a dozen separate themes, each repeated multiple times.

There’s not much we’re ever going to be able to do about that particular end of the fever swamp.

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Earlier this week, though, serious questions were raised about the unwitting role that mainstream social media platforms play in amplifying messages like this. Often, it seems, algorithms act instantly, creating crises that well-meaning humans sort out hours later when they get to work and the complaints start rolling in.

Here’s what a Google search for Geary Danley looked like on Monday morning in working hours, EDT. Bear in mind that Danley’s name was well-enough known at this point that reporters were Googling it:


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Is Danley guilty of the worst mass murder in U.S. history? Or is he falsely accused? For much of Monday, Google offered a jumble of possible facts; take your pick. In the top stories slot at the top of the page, where they get a bit of implied legitimacy, are threads in 4chan, a discussion board which has been a toxic centre of alt-right troll culture.

Google fixed the problem by mid-day in Ontario, on a time scale that looked very much like the start of the business day in California. But the question remains why the top story feature was allowed to draw from 4chan, of all places, in the first place. Here’s what the company had to say:

Facebook had its own woes.

The platform’s ‘safety check’ page for the Las Vegas shootings was promoting a variety of fake news sites, including a site called Alt-Right News, ‘funny video‘ links and a scam involving Bitcoin before the grown-ups woke up and fixed the problem.

Bear in mind that this is the site that’s presented to people who are trying to figure out whether family members are alive or dead.

YouTube fared no better — videos calling the shooting a hoax surfaced at the top of search results, prompting bitter criticism from survivors. (The Guardian reported that the video platform had changed its algorithms, but on Friday, three of the top six YouTube results for a search for ‘las vegas shooting‘ were videos peddling conspiracy theories. One was from Jones, one from a sort of low-rent imitator, and the third was sellingthe cleanest superfoods in the world‘.)

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In all cases, the problem is an unavoidable result of trying to automate the human process of judging how, when and whether to present information to other humans, which we might as well call editing. Editing is expensive, and not part of the business plan; algorithms are cheap, and are part of the business plan.

Platforms like Google and Facebook try to automate the judgment that would once have been exercised by the editorial departments and for that matter ad departments, of traditional media companies.

But algorithms turn out to be easy to manipulate if you know what you’re doing, and the result, in a crisis, is humiliation — and humans having to be paid to intervene anyway.

WATCH: Las Vegas police on Tuesday said that Stephen Paddock, the retiree who killed 58 people in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, strafed the concert crowd with bullets for nine to 11 minutes before taking his own life, and had set up cameras inside and outside his hotel suite so he could see police as they closed in on his location.
Gunman fired for about 9 to 11 minutes: Las Vegas police
Gunman fired for about 9 to 11 minutes: Las Vegas police

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In fake news news:

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