Google and Facebook spread conspiracies, dangerous misinformation in wake of Las Vegas shooting

Social media networks and internet platforms failed their users at exactly the wrong time.

Police officers stand along the Las Vegas Strip the Mandalay Bay resort and casino during a shooting near the casino, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Police officers stand along the Las Vegas Strip the Mandalay Bay resort and casino during a shooting near the casino, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

The senseless slaughter at a concert in Las Vegas this week was a chance for a beleaguered Silicon Valley to prove how its products can help connect worried loved ones and provide up-to-date news during tragedies.

Unfortunately, on Monday morning, the opposite happened.

For nearly 12 hours, Facebook’s Safety Check page for “The Violent Incident in Las Vegas, Nevada” — a mass shooting which left at least 58 people dead and injured over 500 more — highlighted news sites which were at best unreliable, including one called “Alt Right News Blogspot” and another website called “End Time Headlines.”

Facebook’s algorithms for determining which stories are most important also elevated a Gateway Pundit piece to the top of the Crisis Response page. The story in question falsely claimed that the shooting had been carried out by Geary Danley, a “Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army.”

Conspiracy theorists and trolls on 4chan circulated Geary Danley’s name after Las Vegas police identified Marilou Danley as a “person of interest” connected with the shooting. Marilou Danley has since been dismissed as a person of interest; earlier Monday morning, police established that she was out of the country at the time of the shooting and that the shooter had used her slot machine card, which triggered the initial investigation into her involvement.

The Gateway Pundit post was eventually deleted. A Facebook spokesperson said that the story was spotted by the the company’s Global Security Operations Center and removed Monday morning. “Its removal was delayed by a few minutes, allowing it be screen captured and circulate online,” they said. “We are working to fix the issue that allowed this to happen in the first place and deeply regret the confusion this caused.”

Links to the fake news, as well as 4chan threads describing Geary Danley as a suspect, were also elevated to the top of Google’s algorithm-arranged list of stories about the Las Vegas shooting.

“Unfortunately, early this morning we were briefly surfacing an inaccurate 4chan websites in our Search results for a small number of queries,” Google said in a statement. “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.”

Recurrent fake news themes have also began to show up on social media in wake of the shooting. One was the idea that the witnesses interviewed by reporters were “crisis actors”, individuals that conspiracy theorists believe are government operatives assigned to fake “grief” as part of a false flag operation. The idea started gaining traction among conspiracy theorists after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 and was partly centered on the notion that a grief-stricken girl in a photo taken after that shooting looked the same as a grief-stricken girl in a photo taken after the Aurora theater massacre.

Oddly enough, one of the believers of the “crisis actors” was Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic series, who tweeted that a body analysis of the shooter’s brother was “fascinating”.

Twitter trolls also spread photos of fake “missing relatives.” Among those reported “missing” were comedian Sam Hyde, soccer player Mesut Ozil, and porn star Johnny Sims. Mashable approached one of the trolls to ask why they were spreading disinformation.

“For the retweets,” he replied.