On Monday, I was up early and first heard about the Las Vegas shooting on the radio in the car. It was still dark, and the winding road thick with fog, lending an eerie mood to the sound of Scott Simon’s voice on NPR reporting what little was known about this latest incident in what is now an epidemic of mass-killings. I had yet to look at any social media, to read anyone else’s opinion or to have the raw facts of the tragedy synthesized through the narrative of gun control, mental illness, terrorism, or any other matter of public policy. There was just the horrible truth of what had happened without theory or explanation. This is how we used to digest the news: Here’s what we know so far. Stay tuned.
Social media abhors a vacuum. And in the hazy interval between breaking reports of an event like the Las Vegas spree-shooting and the revelation of salient, credible details, the pranksters, trolls, and professional liars come out to play. Brianna Provenzano, writing for Mic.com, states that for several hours, “Facebook and Google’s algorithms prioritized fake news” about the Las Vegas shooting. As she puts it “conservative conspiracy sites like the Gateway Pundit lit up with misinformation about the shooter’s identity.” Her article shows one example of a headline naming some poort guy who had nothing to do with the shooting, calling him a “Democrat Who Likes Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org, and Associated with Anti-Trump Army.”
According to Provenzano, the Gateway Pundit story was among the top results on Facebook before it was removed, but also that once the innocent man’s name was out there, Google searches for it led readers to a 4Chan thread “labeling him a dangerous leftist,” Provenzano writes. She also reports that Google eventually made algorithmic adjustments to replace the 4Chan story with relevant results and stated it will continue to be vigilant in this regard.
It’s right that Google and Facebook took action to quash, or at least mitigate, misleading “news” about such a gravely serious incident, especially bogus reports naming an innocent man as the perpetrator. But for those of us regularly following the policy positions of the internet industry, the hypocrisy here is not missed. For instance, Google can clearly take remediating steps where to no do so would look bad for them; but in other contexts in which search results may facilitate harm, they will expound ad nauseam upon the sanctity of free speech as a universal rationale to leave all data exactly where it is.
For instance, regarding the Equustek case and the Canadian court order to remove links, I fail to see a substantive distinction, in a speech context, between a counterfeiter using search to hijack customers from a legitimate product-maker and a counterfeit news-maker using search to hijack readers from legitimate reporting. In fact, ironically enough, a bogus news story, harmful and revolting as it may be in the wake of a tragedy like Las Vegas, has a better claim to speech rights than a hyperlink which leads consumers to a product or service that is breaking the law.
So, it’s not that I think Google et al shouldn’t make decisions to remove or demote “news” emanating from the adolescent babooneries of places like 4Chan. They absolutely should. Fake news is toxic, and we have enough problems with grim reality without people inventing and believing bogus narratives. But as I’ve argued more times than I can count, speech cannot be the default rationale for a universal laissez-faire policy in cyberspace. And as this story demonstrates, it’s a lie anyway. The major web platforms can and will manipulate, delete, or demote content, or links to content, when they are motivated to do so. Whether these internal decisions are driven by revenue, public relations, or even altruism, speech-maximalism does not seem to factor into their thinking, so there’s no reason why it should necessarily factor into external motivations like a court order.
Meanwhile, we can’t expect Google and Facebook to stop people from being idiots. Readers may remember that after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, netizens took it upon themselves to play law enforcement. Not only did they vilify an innocent man whose whereabouts were unknown, but the cyber-mob soon harassed the man’s family, who would then discover that they young man was missing because he had committed suicide.
In the early days of Web 1.0, I rejected the old cliché Don’t believe anything you read on the internet because, of course, the internet really was just a conduit, and a credible source is a credible source. But now that there’s such a bounty of absolute garbage that can either be designed to look legit or can be algorithmically elevated to undeserved prominence, that I think skepticism should be the default approach to nearly every headline. So far, the “information revolution” is at least half oxymoronic. And part of the problem is that it can be very hard to know which half.