Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Charlie Warzel, for Buzzfeed News, asks a pretty simple question: Why Can Everyone Spot Fake News But The Tech Companies? Warzel begins by discussing the misinformation promoted by Google Search, Facebook, and YouTube in the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting in October 2017.

Over the next two days, journalists and misinformation researchers uncovered and tweeted still more examples of fake news and conspiracy theories propagating in the aftermath of the tragedy. The New York Times’ John Herrman found pages of conspiratorial YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands of views, many of them highly ranked in search returns. Cale Weissman at Fast Company noticed that Facebook’s crisis response page was surfacing news stories from alt-right blogs and sites like End Time Headlines rife with false information. I tracked how YouTube’s recommendation engine allows users to stumble down an algorithm-powered conspiracy video rabbit hole. In each instance, the journalists reported their findings to the platforms. And in each instance, the platforms apologized, claimed they were unaware of the content, promised to improve, and removed it.

I think that paragraph could just as easily have been written in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, or the Aurora movie theater shooting, or the Sandy Hook shooting, or whatever the next mass shooting will be. Which is kind of Warzel’s point:

All of this raises a mind-bendingly simple question that YouTube, Google, Twitter, and Facebook have not yet answered: How is it that the average untrained human can do something that multi-billion dollar technology companies that pride themselves on innovation cannot? And beyond that, why is it that — after multiple national tragedies politicized by malicious hoaxes and misinformation — such a question even needs to be asked?

Look, of course Google and Facebook and Twitter can’t monitor all of the content on their platforms posted by their billions of users. Nor does anyone really expect them to. But policing what’s taking off and trending as it relates to the news of the day is another matter. Clearly, it can be done because people are already doing it.

Seriously, if a handful of Buzzfeed’s reporters can flag this in near real-time for free, surely Facebook and YouTube can hire a dozen folks to watch stuff trend and flag it. Heck, Facebook used to have exactly that thing. It worked great, except for the part where the conspiracy theorists complained that Facebook unfairly blocked right-wing conspiracy theories from trending.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, has called this phenomenon the “View From Nowhere”. Rosen coined this term in 2003, when there was no Facebook; it originally applied to things like the New York Times’s coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War. But here, when Facebook fired the team of people meant to keep the Trending Stories algorithm from promoting conspiracy theories, I see the View From Nowhere striking again. Facebook fired its team because its team couldn’t suppress as many left-wing conspiracy theories as right-wing conspiracy theories. That means that either Facebook hired a bunch of liberal ideologues who brought their politics to work every day, or conspiracy theories find more traction in conservative media than liberal media.

This isn’t new, either. Toward the end of his first term, President Obama famously predicted the Republican fever would break during his second term. I think a national conversation on this is long overdue. Perhaps we’ll get one after the next set of teen crisis actors stage a school shooting.