By the time many woke up Monday to news of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, social media sites were already scrambling to delete misinformation and hoaxes that were spreading quickly. Despite the efforts, fake news about the shooter's political leanings and his religion gained traction online.
When crawling for news of the shooting, Google's algorithm picked up a link from the notorious troll community 4Chan, wrongly identifying the shooter. The link made it into Google's top news module.
In a statement, Google said its search engine was "briefly surfacing an inaccurate 4chan website in our search results for a small number of queries. 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.”
On Facebook's Safety Check page, a link from "Alt-Right News" incorrectly identifying the shooter and alleging he was an anti-Trump liberal was displayed.
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“Our Global Security Operations Center spotted the post this morning and removed it," Facebook said in a statement. "However, its removal was delayed, allowing it to be screen captured and circulated online. We are working to fix the issue that allowed this to happen in the first place and deeply regret the confusion this caused."
And on Twitter some seemingly heartfelt pleas asking for help finding a missing loved one racked up retweets using photos of everyone from a porn star to a child Vine star before those accounts were eventually suspended.
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Twitter spokeswoman Liz Kelley said the site is "reviewing and removing content that violates our rules — both proactively and through reports."
Kelley pointed to a company blog post in June detailing the benefits and challenges of Twitter's format when it comes to ridding the site of fake news. "Twitter’s open and real-time nature is a powerful antidote to the spreading of all types of false information. This is important because we cannot distinguish whether every single Tweet from every person is truthful or not," Colin Crowell, Twitter's vice president of public policy, government and philanthropy, wrote in the post.
The problem of erroneous information being posted on social media platforms is often worsened as well-intentioned people press the share or retweet buttons, helping to spread a piece of fake news, Allison Matherly, coordinator of digital engagement at Texas Tech University said.
"It’s not just people purposely spreading misinformation," Matherly said. "People also accidentally spread information wanting to inform those around them, and they don’t vet the social media post and spread that misinformation further."
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Trolls also deserve some of the blame, Matherly said: "Some people just enjoy adding to the chaos, which makes it important for consumers of the information to pay attention."
While top social media and news aggregators are generally taking steps under pressure to crack down on the rash of fake news that accelerated in 2016, Matherly said the best weapon for fighting misinformation is skepticism.
"I think it is always important for each consumer to determine the validity of the information they are reading," Matherly said. "While it’s important for the platforms themselves to try to ensure accuracy of information, ultimately the responsibility lies with the consumer to decide for themselves."