In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, Facebook, Google, and social media was lit up with people trying to find out what was going on.
Among this activity was the spreading of false news stories and misinformation, including most prominently the sharing of someone who was presumed to have been the shooter. That person’s name quickly spread across Facebook, based initially off a post on the alt-right forum 4chan. This accusation of this person being the shooter was proven to be false, despite Facebook’s claims otherwise.
Even after police in Las Vegas identified the shooter, the internet-accused continue to have his name shared across Facebook. Top sites on Google searches continued to share that this man was the shooter. The 4chan forum where his name initially appeared attached to the Las Vegas shooting promoted their find as a ‘top story’.
Why this happened somewhat has to do with the fast and flawed algorithms that are used by companies such as Google. Constantly crawling the web for new information, Google does not have the opportunity to verify every search result they receive. All they have to go by is keyword. Despite Google publicly apologizing for the error and having openly committed to ensuring this doesn’t happen in the future, spreading misinformation continues to be a regular occurrence on Google and social media in general, including Facebook.
A site like Facebook gives faux news, rumours, and misinformation credibility because it is being crowd-sourced and shared in real-time. Though some may argue that Facebook cannot do much about it, they actually can. For example, assigning different values to different sites according to the standard of news they produce is among the hundreds of ways in which this type of automated news sharing could be changed.
This is far from the first time that such an event has happened with the internet regularly accusing innocent people of committing crimes that they were found to have not committed by law.
The internet’s many corners utilizes search designs that work from keywords. As long as someone can program a story to contain a set of given keywords, no matter how truthful or untruthful it is, there is a chance that it could end up in the number one spot for Google search results.
This time around, this means a man being accused of mass murder, sharing his personal information and degrading his personal reputation. This is akin to the McCarthy hearings in regards to communists, the burning of witches in the Middle Ages, and any other examples of prejudice and jumping to a conclusion based off of misinformation and/or misleading the public.
It is incidents like these that require sites such as Google and Facebook to find better ways of building their search and sharing capabilities. To the next person who is falsely accused of a crime or whose personal reputation is sullied by false information and rumour, these platforms are still going to be held responsible.