Google, Facebook and Twitter put out fake news on Las Vegas massacre

If the bloody massacre in Las Vegas was a test of the ability of Google, Facebook and Twitter to stop fake news, all three failed miserably. 

Google dredged up a search result from Internet cesspool 4chan that named the wrong man as the killer. Facebook’s “Safety Check” feature confronted users with far-right blogs that spat out false information about victims and the shooter. Twitter coughed up false rumors and “missing” people who weren’t connected to the slaughter. 

As of mid-day Oct 2, the death toll from the Oct 1 shooting stood at 58, and with some 500 people wounded, it would probably go higher. 

The fake news spilling from the platforms of Bay Area tech giants comes as they face questions from Congress about alleged use of their services by Russia-linked entities in an alleged campaign to influence the presidential election that gave us Donald Trump. 

Authorities identified the gunman – who killed himself – as Stephen Paddock, 64, of Nevada, but Google initially had surfaced a result from sleazy online forum 4chan identifying the killer as someone else. Users of 4chan had named the shooter as Geary Danley, and Google – in response to queries using Danley’s name – surfaced into its “Top Stories” section a 4chan message board identifying him as the gunman. 

Well known as a haven for racists, misogynists and conspiracy theorists, 4chan was also the source of 2008 fake news that Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs suffered a heart attack – a falsity that nonetheless knocked US$5bil (RM21.17bil) off of Apple’s stock value in a single morning. 

Journalist William Turton tweeted that he’d received from Google a response concerning the 4chan misinformation, and Google’s answer appeared to suggest the infamously untrustworthy website was a legitimate news source. Google, Turton tweeted, had referred to a time “when the fresh 4chan story broke.” 

“Google saying ‘when the fresh 4chan story broke’ makes me wonder if Google even….knows what 4chan is?” Turton tweeted. 

The false content on 4chan about the mass murderer was “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,” Business Insider reported. 

The Gateway Pundit said the attacker was reportedly an anti-Trump Democrat, a lover of liberal TV host Rachel Maddow, and a “far-left loon.” 

Google, in a statement to news outlets, acknowledged that it had been “briefly surfacing an inaccurate 4chan website in our Search results for a small number of queries.” The fake news was “algorithmically replaced by relevant results,” Google said, “within hours.” 

“This should not have appeared for any queries, and we’ll continue to make algorithmic improvements to prevent this from happening in the future,” Google said. 

Facebook’s fake-news arose in a sensitive spot: the “Security Check” page that lets people involved with human-made and natural disasters post messages for friends and loved ones. Instead of presenting only legitimate reporting to users desperate to find out the fate of people in Las Vegas, Facebook’s automated system included a blog post from “Alt-Right News,” Fast Company reported. 

The post suggested that the killer may have been “a Trump-hating Rachel Maddow fan” in an apparent reference to the misidentified Danley’s Facebook page. Alt-Right News on Oct 2 theorised that the actual shooter, Paddock, was probably a “left-wing nutjob” associated with a woman who “may or may not be a Muslim.” 

Facebook said its security staff had seen the post and removed it. “However, its removal was delayed by a few minutes, allowing it to be screen captured and circulated online,” the firm told Fast Company. 

“We are working to fix the issue that allowed this to happen in the first place and deeply regret the confusion this caused.” 

Fake news from the shooting may have gotten its first push from Twitter, with false reports appearing within minutes of the shooting, Buzzfeed reported. Then the false reports of “missing” people started popping up, the website reported.

Among those falsely stated to be missing in Las Vegas were a German pro soccer player and a murder suspect from Mexico – whose pictures were apparently plucked from the Internet. — San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service