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A few years ago, I started doing a talk about using social media to advance skepticism, though in reality it was also a talk about how hard it is to stop misinformation from spreading on social media.
I talked specifically about a few studies, including a paper from 2010 titled “From Obscurity to Prominence in Minutes: Political Speech and Real-Time Search.” Researchers at Wellesley examined the political race between Scott Brown and Martha Coakley, who ran against each other for Senate in Massachusetts. Coakley was the heavy favorite right up until election day, when Brown suddenly rocketed ahead of her. The researchers identified the primary culprit as Brown’s very successful social media campaign using bots on Twitter. The bots all followed one another and continually retweeted a link to a website smearing Coakley with lies. Not only did this cause more people to see the smear campaign on Twitter, but Google had at the time just introduced social media results into its results page, placing them prominently at the top. That allowed people who weren’t even on Twitter, who just happened to search for information about Coakley or about Brown, to see the smears as the first result.
The researchers concluded that Google’s actions provided “disproportionate exposure to personal opinions, fabricated content, unverified events, lies and misrepresentations that otherwise would not find their way in the first page, giving them the opportunity to spread virally.”
I bring all this up because despite their findings, Google still incorporates social media in results and it still has a negative impact, exposing people to misinformation. On Twitter (ironically?) I saw Justin Hendrix point out that Google is spreading misinformation about the recent mass murder of churchgoers in Texas. If you search “Who is Devin Kelley?,” you can see what’s “popular on Twitter,” and what’s popular on Twitter is a whole lotta bullshit.
Much like with the conservative “Twitter bombing,” staunch conservative conspiracy theorists have hijacked this story on social media. Before the news broke that the murderer was a white man, Redditors were already convinced it was a Muslim immigrant. Once that turned out to not be true, they decided the white man must be a Bernie-loving socialist and even an Antifa, which of course means “anti-fascist.” None of those things is true, and can be attributed to fake Facebook pages or just Tweets that state it as though it’s a fact with no actual evidence to back it up.
In fact, Kelley was exactly the type we have come to expect to commit horrific crimes like this: an angry white man with a history of domestic violence and a love of guns.
People using Google, though, may never realize that. To make matters worse, Google’s autocomplete feature jumped into the fray by offering up “Antifa” as the third option when people search for Devin Kelley (and yes, that’s logged out, incognito mode, so it’s not based on the individual user’s previous searches).
These are basic features that Google has installed to make it a more pleasant user experience, but the result is reinforcement of “fake news,” and dangerous news at that. It’s hard enough to get any kind of solutions to the rampant gun violence happening in the United States right now, without rumors proliferating about gunmen killing because they are antifascist. Don’t get me wrong — people do kill because they’re antifascist, but traditionally those people were your grandparents and they were actually killing fascists. When people in the US commit mass murder, they traditionally do it because they’re violent people with easy access to guns. Understanding that might help us stop it.