Are tech companies finally taking online hoaxes seriously? Here’s what’s changed since Parkland

Last week’s school shooting in Santa Fe, TX -- the 22nd this year -- reinforced that school shootings in America have become routine and, as a few people pointed out on Twitter, so has the reaction to each incident. You already know what politicians on both sides of the aisle will say, how media will report it, and what narratives will unfold on social media in the days after. It’s a depressing, demoralizing, and all too familiar fact of life in this country.

Hoaxes and misinformation that spread after a shooting have also become part of the routine.Media Matters collected numerous hoaxes about the Santa Fe shooting just on the day it happened, as did other outlets. It seems reporting on hoaxes is part of the mass shooting beat now. These hoaxes tend to follow the same patterns, the most common being that the shooting is a false flag and that the student survivors are paid crisis actors. They are amplified on social media starting in online forums like 4chan and Gab, spread on mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and in some cases reported by some radio stations as fact.

Tech companies have come under increasing criticism for their role in this cycle. They’ve continually failed to protect victims, survivors, and their families from hoaxes and misinformation despite the predictability of it all. The constant attacks on the Parkland student survivors, most of whom are still minors, shed new light on this problem. As the students faced attacks from online trolls and far-right media figures, they fought fire with fire, using the same social media platforms to amplify their own message and calling out the disinformation attacks against them along the way. Thanks to the Parkland survivors, Americans saw just how ugly attacks like this are and how they dehumanize minors. Social media companies were heavily criticized for their role in spreading the hoaxes and they belatedly took concrete steps to protect the Parkland survivors.

As Media Matters researchers compiled the Santa Fe hoaxes, we noticed a different trend: The hoaxes weren’t spreading as quickly on the big social platforms. 4chan and Gab were still churning them out at the usual frequency, but they were largely limited there. Facebook’s trending topics listed the shooting, but pointed to only mainstream news sources, and Facebook swiftly took down fake profiles of the alleged shooter after trolls created them. Twitter searches of the terms “false flag” and “crisis actor” did not yield results of conspiracy theories, and mostly showed users complaining that people on the far-right were already calling a student survivor a crisis actor. It seems likely that tech companies continued their strategy from the Parkland shooting of suspending accounts that spread hoaxes. Google News and YouTube also kept conspiracy content largely off their front pages. Even on Reddit forum r/The_Donald, usually a hub of conspiracy theories, moderators warned users against spreading false information and posting personal information about others online.

Did tech companies finally get it right? Maybe. The usual suspects did what they always do after a mass shooting, but as of yet hoaxes haven’t moved beyond unmoderated far-right spaces. It seems that the tech companies might have finally responded to consumer pressure and done the right thing: protect victims, survivors, and their families from online misinformation campaign that can cause real harm. So far, none of the hoaxes have become part of the narrative around the Santa Fe mass shooting. Instead of asking students to confirm that they aren't crisis actors, mainstream outlets are mentioning “crisis actors” mostly in the context of hoaxes.

We also must give credit to the Parkland student survivors who spoke out against gun violence and stood up for themselves when they were attacked. Their continued activism forced tech companies to do more to protect minors from this kind of abuse.

We’re not out of the woods yet. The same folks who actively work to spread disinformation will figure out that this tactic no longer works. They’ll seek new ways to spread hoaxes and new ways to weaponize social media for their own purposes. But my takeaway from the Santa Fe shooting is that tech might finally be taking this problem seriously.

Additional research by Cristina Lopez and Alex Kaplan.