Google Displayed Fake News in Wake of Las Vegas Shooting

As law enforcement and news organizations raced to piece together what happened during the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history Sunday night in Las Vegas, web denizens less wedded to the truth rushed in to provide details of their own—which quickly went viral.

Links to the 4chan website that falsely identified the shooter and called him a leftist and Democratic supporter were showing up on the top of Google search results, according to tweets by Buzzfeed News reporter, Ryan Broderick. Conservative writer Joe Hoft pounced, publishing and then retracting an article about the misidentified man. Police later identified a different person, Stephen Paddock, as the shooter.

Also, apparently Google is putting 4chan threads in their top story unit now? So, the number one hit for his name is a /pol/ thread. pic.twitter.com/OYwW6pbWvy

— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) October 2, 2017

A few hours later, searches for the same name were showing articles debunking the 4chan post and cataloguing the trail of viral fake news after the shooting. Once police identified Paddock, accounts on Twitter and Facebook began claiming he was part of the leftist group Antifa.

“Unfortunately, early this morning we were briefly surfacing an inaccurate 4chan website in our search results for a small number of queries,” a Google spokeswoman said in an emailed 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.”

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 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. 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.   

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