Web giants allowed fake news to spread on Las Vegas shooting

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Web giants allowed fake news to spread on Las Vegas shooting
A man holds his head during a prayer at a vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, US, Oct. 3. -- REUTERS

WASHINGTON — US online giants acknowledged Tuesday they failed to prevent rumors and misinformation from being circulated during and after the deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Facebook, Google and Twitter said they were working on fixes after learning of fake news ending up in feeds and searches following the shooting that killed 59 and injured over 500 people.

Some rumors identified the wrong person as the shooter, others named a search for a female person of interest described as a “Trump-hating Rachel Maddow fan,” referring to an MSNBC host who is a fierce critic of President Donald Trump.

After news outlets pointed out false reports from the 4chan message board were appearing at the top of Google search results, the Internet giant said it acted to correct the problem.

“Within hours, the 4chan story was algorithmically replaced by relevant results,” Google said in an e-mail to AFP.

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

Once police identified the shooter as Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old gambler and retired accountant, accounts on Twitter and Facebook began claiming he was part of the leftist group Antifa.

Facebook said it discovered a false news story on the shooting and acted to remove it.

“However, its removal was delayed by a few minutes, allowing it to be screen captured and circulated online,” Facebook said.

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

Twitter said it too was stepping up efforts to weed out false reports on the shooting.

“We are aware of this issue and are proactively taking action on content that violates our terms of service,” a Twitter spokesman said.

The incident highlights yet again how news and social media algorithms designed to help surface the best information can fall short in the hours after a major incident, when few factual details are readily available because authorities have yet to confirm or release them.

Millions of concerned people, some potentially with family members affected by the shooting, likely Googled or searched on Twitter and Facebook for scraps of information in the hours after the attack.

The shooting also comes in the midst of a broader conversation about the responsibility of social networks to vet the veracity of the information shared on their sites, and about the extent to which fake information can influence politics.

The online giants have faced increasing pressure to prevent manipulation of their platforms after revelations of Russian-led efforts to spread misinformation ahead of the 2016 US election.

Facebook is expected to share with Congress more than 3,000 examples of ads Russia-linked accounts bought on the platform from 2015 to 2017. Last week, lawmakers rebuked Twitter, saying the company’s presentation about Russia-linked accounts on its own site didn’t dig deep enough. — AFP with a report from Bloomberg