By Meghan Huggan

In the hours after tragedy, it is crucial that accurate facts of the events are announced to the public. In the early morning hours after the October 2017 Las Vegas shooting, fake news of the attacker and his motives began to circle through the internet. Photos of a man wrongly identified as the attacker were shared hundreds of times on social media, conspiracy reports created by alt-right group 4chan were promoted on Google’s top stories module, and a story published by Russian government news agency, Sputnik, was seen on Facebook’s trending topics page. These deliberate hoaxes were presented on extremely influential virtual platforms amongst reliable news sources without any indicators to show which reports came from valid sources, misguiding readers to believe bogus information promoted by biased writers.

Google and Facebook have both blamed algorithm errors for these inaccurate story promotions, but this is not a unique incident. In recent years propagandists have started to use mass tragedies as opportunities to circulate misinformation on popular virtual platforms. Examples of this even trace to the current investigations being done on the 2016 presidential election. Google has begun to brief Congress on the roles it played in the possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. Additionally, Facebook recently “handed congressional investigators 3,000 ads that had been purchased by Russian government affiliates during the 2016 campaign season,” and reported that an estimated 10 million people in the US saw the ads. Also included in the report was Facebook’s vow to hire 1,000 more human moderators to review ads posted on its news feeds and topic pages for improper content.

Improved algorithm designs and the help of professional fact checkers could decrease fake news dispersal on major social media sites. Facebook, for example, has already begun to flag some quarreled about stories posted on its feeds with “disputed” tags to warn readers of the potentiality of bogus information; although, the process of labeling fake stories has proven to be problematic. Mark Zuckerberg laid out a map to stop the spreading of intentionally deceptive news stories in November of 2016: “either Facebook’s users have to report the story as bogus, or Facebook’s software has to catch something odd about it, Facebook will send the story to some of the organizations that have signed on to provide free fact-checking [and] if two of those fact checkers think it’s bogus, the label goes on.” In other words, that phony story about George Washington your grandmother posted on Facebook is going to stay on your news feed, but now it may get a “disputed” label, eventually.

The presentation of false information on virtual platforms has become a universal concern. Reportedly, two-thirds of American adults acquire their news from social media sources and Google. This lays great responsibility on popular virtual platform creators and regulators to promote as accurate news information as possible, and discard the rest. When will fake news reports stop being posted on trending platforms? No one is sure, but ceasing the exploitation of major tragedy news reports seems to be transforming into a main concern of platform creators and regulators.

Student Bio: Meghan Huggan, 2L, B.S. in Legal Studies and Psychology from Roger Williams University.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.


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