Google, Facebook Tackle Misinformation in Wake of Las Vegas Shooting

By Yoree Koh Features Dow Jones Newswires

Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Facebook Inc. displayed false information in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, again raising concerns over people's ability to manipulate the heavily trafficked platforms for social media and news.

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The companies Monday said they promptly deleted the material, which had been pulled from websites by algorithms searching for news about the massacre, which killed at least 58 people and injured more than 500.

Shortly after the shooting, the "Top Stories" section of Google's search results about the incident included a channel from the anonymous messaging board 4chan.org that identified the wrong person as the shooter. The thread has since been replaced in the search results by news articles.

Google said the 4chan search result only surfaced when people searched for the person wrongly identified as the shooter, a fraction of overall queries. The misinformation appeared in general search results -- not its Google News product -- an important distinction because Google vets news sources that appear in Google News results, the company said.

Google said it takes various signals into consideration when it comes up with its ranked search results, including the trustworthiness and timeliness of the source.

"Within hours, the 4chan story was algorithmically replaced by relevant results," a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. "This should not have appeared for any queries, and we'll continue to make algorithmic improvements to prevent this from happening in the future."

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Facebook's Trending Topics section for the shooting includes a featured article and a mix of public posts generated by an algorithm. Some people who clicked through saw posts from Sputnik, a Russia-backed news outlet that has come under Justice Department scrutiny. The posts incorrectly reported the suspected shooter had ties to a terrorist group. Las Vegas police have identified the shooter as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nev.

After initiating a "Safety Check" for Las Vegas, which provides information as a situation unfolds, Facebook populated the page's top stories with information from what appeared to be little-known sites, according to screenshots. These stories have since been replaced with news from more prominent outlets such as NBC News.

"Our Global Security Operations Center spotted these posts this morning and we have removed them," a Facebook spokesman said in a statement. "However, their removal was delayed, allowing them to be screen captured and circulated online. We are working to fix the issue that allowed this to happen in the first place and deeply regret the confusion this caused."

Social-media companies have become vital communications tools for people in the aftermath of natural disasters and other deadly incidents. Facebook's Safety Check, for example, lets people check in with friends and family to let them know whether they are safe. Facebook and Google say they are constantly fine-tuning their algorithms to show better results.

The displays of misleading Las Vegas information come as social-media companies face increasing criticism over how they manage platforms that have become a dominant way people find and consume news.

Facebook is due to hand over to congressional investigators thousands of ads paid for by Russian entities, who are suspected of meddling in the U.S. presidential election. The company has been criticized after a report showed people could target ads who expressed an interest in anti-Semitic and other hateful topics. On Monday, Facebook said it plans to add 1,000 new workers to review advertisements.

Google is talking with congressional investigators as it conducts its own investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. Twitter Inc. also is facing heat over the prevalence of anonymous, automated accounts -- or bots -- on its platform.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 02, 2017 18:31 ET (22:31 GMT)