On October 1, 2017 a domestic terrorist fired hundreds of rounds from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas into a concert crowd, killing fifty eight people and injuring hundreds more. The shooter? Early reporting named Geary Danley, a neo-liberal, anti-Trump fanatic who “liked” Black Lives Matter, “Anti-Trump Army,” “Fight Trump,” and a litany of other left leaning sites on Facebook. According to Gateway Pundit, a media outlet credentialed by the White-House, Danley was “another angry far-left shooter.”

In reality, Geary Danley had nothing to do with the shooting. Instead, his involvement had been fabricated on the notorious message board website 4chan. According to the New York Times “[4Chan posters] spent the night scheming about how to pin the shooting on liberals.” One 4Chan thread focused on Marilou Danley –who had been named a person of interest in the shooting and was believed to be in a relationship with the shooter. Using her name, posters found her Facebook page– which noted that she had been married to Geary Danley in 2011. A quick search for Geary’s page revealed that he was a fan of several left leaning pages, and as such, alt-right 4Chan “trolls” began aggressively pushing the narrative that Geary was the suspected shooter. At this point, the story was picked up by Gateway Pundit, and the outlet ran a since deleted story entitled “Las Vegas Shooter Reportedly a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army.” Posters on 4chan continued to falsely accuse Geary even after it became clear he was not the shooter. As a result of the fake-news story Danley’s family received death threats .

Ultimately the Danley story was quickly debunked, however, that the fake story gained so much traction in the first place should be particularly concerning to both Facebook and Google.

In the wake of reports that Russian hackers and fake-news artists had influenced the 2016 presidential election, Facebook and Google both pledged to fight the spread of fake-news. The corporations quickly adopted in-house approaches to deal with misinformation, largely focusing on changing their algorithms and identifying suspicious articles.

Yet, despite these measures, the 4chan Danley thread was featured as a “Top Story” for the Google search “Geary Danley,” and the Gateway Pundit article appeared on Facebook’s “Crisis Response” page the day after the tragedy. Both companies ultimately blamed their algorithms for the problem.

While it is true that Facebook removed the story and Google’s algorithm eventually replaced the results, it is becoming clear that the corporations’ in-house attempts to stifle fake-news –through algorithms and identification– have been completely ineffective and in some cases have actually caused false stories to be shared more. Further, fake-news organizations are extremely adept at manipulating algorithms using techniques like “keyword bombs” to amplify their stories, so it is unclear to what extent algorithmic changes could solve the problem (it certainly doesn’t help that Google’s algorithm may treat 4chan similarly to legitimate news sources).

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Facebook and Google are beginning to face the real possibility of external regulation. Such regulation has already begun in Europe — in the wake of the American election, Germany passed a bill that allows for up to a 50 million euro fine to social media companies who fail to remove “flagged” offensive content (including fake-news) in a timely manner. Some speculated that the bill was passed in response to the outcome of the 2016 election, and if that was the case, the bill was effective –the German election was largely unaffected by fake-news.

While American policy is generally adverse to regulation of speech and speech protections are much stronger in the United States than Europe, the failure of Facebook and Google to police themselves have increased the call for content based regulation.  Progressives may be especially favorable to content-based regulation, as a way to prevent hate speech and the proliferation of fake-news (which Hillary Clinton herself believes contributed to her election loss). Democratic lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would require Facebook to disclose political ads run on its network, and Facebook, Google, and Twitter were recently called to testify in front of the House and Senate committees investigating Russian influence on the 2016 election. And while content-based regulation may potentially run afoul of the 1st Amendment, there are a plethora of other means by which large silicon valley corporations could be regulated. Indeed, former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon pushed for tougher regulations on Facebook and Google on anti-trust grounds.

One thing is for certain, if Google and Facebook continue to fail at preventing fake-news, the call for regulation will only get louder.

– Ian R. Joyce

 

 

 

 

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