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A page set up by Facebook to keep the public up to date on the October 1 Las Vegas shooting, along with searches on Google and YouTube regarding the shooting, show the struggle these platforms still have in combating fake and dubious news.
During the 2016 election campaign, fake news was widely shared on Facebook, including in its “trending topics” section. In response to intense criticism after the election, Facebook said it tried to take measures to limit the spread of fake news. Yet the company disclosed in September that hundreds of fake Russian accounts bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of advertisements, and reports continue to come out about Russia’s use of Facebook to interfere in the election.
Following a shooting on October 1 at a Las Vegas, NV, concert that killed at least 58 people, Facebook created a crisis response page called “The Violent Incident in Las Vegas, Nevada,” where people in the area could confirm that they were safe and users could find ways to support the victims. The page also has an “about” section with links to articles about the shooting, which seemed to appear and then disappear after a certain period of time.
While many of the articles on the page appeared to come from legitimate sources, some did not, and those dubious links even appeared toward the top of the page at certain points. One article that appeared on the page came from TruthFeed, a fake news purveyor that has pushed baseless conspiracy theories and other false claims. Additionally, the page at one point featured a link toward the top to an article from theantimedia.org, which was itself a reprint of an article from fringe blog Zero Hedge. Zero Hedge has a history of pushing conspiracy theories and has shared forged documents targeting then-French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. At another point, the Facebook page also featured, toward the top, an article from consistently inaccurate far-right pro-Trump blog The Gateway Pundit, which had already been forced to delete a post accusing the wrong man of being the Las Vegas shooter earlier that day. It also featured a link to a blog called Alt-Right News, which wrote about the shooting “from an Alt-Right perspective.”
Facebook’s heavy use of algorithms appears to still be harming the website’s ability to block misinformation and nefarious usage of its platform. Besides its crisis page, Facebook's trending topic page for the shooting featured multiple articles from Sputnik, an outlet funded by the Russian government that is currently under investigation by the FBI for possibly violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
And Facebook is not the only platform having problems following the Las Vegas shooting. Google featured in its news section a false claim from 4chan's "politically incorrect" message board (commonly referred to as "/pol/"), which Google blamed on algorithms and absurdly referred to as a "4chan story." And on YouTube, which is owned by Google, a conspiracy theory that the Las Vegas shooter was an "Anti Trump Far Left Activist" is one of the top results if the alleged shooter's name is typed into the search bar. If Facebook and Google cannot get a handle on their misinformation problem, more dubious sources will continue to roam their platforms, earning wide exposure for their misinformation.
Intelligence officials quickly debunked story linking terror group to worst mass shooting in American history
In an October 2 dispatch, The Associated Press promoted the terror group ISIS’ claim that it was responsible for a mass shooting in Las Vegas that left more than 50 dead and 500 others injured, even though the AP acknowledged ISIS provided no evidence to support the assertion. Other outlets rushed to parrot the AP’s report over the next few hours, until the FBI stated the shooter has no connection to ISIS or any other terrorist group.
A 10:15 a.m. EST dispatch from the AP’s Cairo, Egypt, bureau carried the headline “Islamic State Claims Las Vegas Attack” followed by a single sentence noting that ISIS provided “no evidence” to support its claim. Moments later, a corresponding tweet from the AP reiterated the claims:
BREAKING: Without providing evidence, Islamic State claims Las Vegas attack, says shooter converted to Islam months ago.
— The Associated Press (@AP) October 2, 2017
Following the AP’s lead, Newsweek and the New York Post ran with the same misleading headline, providing varying degrees of clarification demonstrating that the claim of ISIS involvement was completely unsubstantiated. Bloomberg reposted the AP report with no alterations, while Time amended the headline to reflect that ISIS “didn’t give any proof” to support its claim. Just a few minutes after the AP flash, Fox News correspondent John Roberts also promoted the claim, speculating about how ISIS involvement, if confirmed, might change the tone of President Donald Trump’s response to the incident. Roughly one hour after AP pushed the story, NBC News legal analyst Pete Williams also discussed the unsubstantiated link to ISIS on MSNBC, but stressed that federal law enforcement and intelligence sources he has spoken with “have absolutely no reason to believe” the supposed link “is true”:
At a press conference at roughly 11:45 a.m. EST, Aaron Rouse, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s field office in Las Vegas, said that federal officials have found “no connection to an international terrorist group.”
After a series of extensive updates, the AP article now mentions that ISIS “often claims attacks by individuals inspired by its message but with no known links to the group.” A similarly styled report from CBS News also reflects, after several updates, that the Las Vegas gunman demonstrated “no early signs of any ties to radical Islamic groups or signs of radicalization,” and notes that ISIS “offered no proof of a link with” the gunman.
In a series of tweets shortly after the AP published its initial report, CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank explained that ISIS is a notoriously unreliable source of information and noted that it has a history of claiming a connection to unrelated shootings and attacks. Rather than simply running with ISIS’ self-aggrandizing propaganda for the sake of adding new angles to developing stories, news outlets should refrain from publishing until all the facts are in.
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Far-right pro-Trump blog The Gateway Pundit wrongly accused a man of being behind a mass shooting in Las Vegas, NV.
Late on October 1, Stephen Craig Paddock reportedly opened fire at a concert in Las Vegas, killing at least 50 people and injuring more than 400. Police have located the alleged gunman's roommate, who they believe “at this time not to be involved.”
Users on 4chan’s “politically incorrect” (/pol/) message board almost immediately incorrectly claimed they had "confirmed" that the gunman was the roommate's husband and shared a screen capture of his Facebook page. (Media Matters is not publishing their names.) The users called the man a “social Democrat MOTHER FUCKER” and said he was part of a “communist revolution.” Users also urged people to “PUSH THE FACT THIS TERRORIST WAS A COMMIE ON ALL SOCIAL MEDIA. MAKE SURE EVERYONE KNOWS.”
The false claim from 4chan, which has previously helped far-right trolls and fake news purveyors spread misinformation, also spread on Twitter and was pushed on other message boards such as CoguarBoard. It even appeared as a top story on Google News. The claim later spread to The Gateway Pundit, which reported, based on the likes on the supposed husband's Facebook page, that the shooter was “Reportedly a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army.” The Gateway Pundit later deleted the article, but Facebook has since prominently featured another Gateway Pundit article about the shooting on its “crisis response” page for the shooting.
This is not the first time The Gateway Pundit, a blog connected to the “alt-right" that has regularly published misinformation, has misidentified a suspect in a killing. In January, the blog misidentified the alleged shooter at Fort Lauderdale’s airport. And in August, the blog wrongly accused a Michigan man of being the driver who drove over and killed counterprotester Heather Heyer during the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, VA. Nor is it the first time Gateway Pundit pushed a false claim from 4chan’s /pol/. In May, the blog hyped forged documents uploaded on the message board alleging that then-French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron was evading taxes. Additionally, in January, Gateway Pundit falsely accused a Washington Post reporter of taking photos of now-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s personal notes at his confirmation hearing, spurring online harassment.
The blog, which President Donald Trump’s favorite morning show, Fox & Friends, has frequently cited or otherwise drawn from, was granted White House press credentials in February. It has since been denied a press pass to cover the Senate, a decision it said it planned to appeal.