Vicky Spratt | Deputy Editor | Tuesday, 3 October 2017

How Fake News Spread Following The Las Vegas Shooting

How Fake News Spread Following The Las Vegas Shooting

The Debrief: Fake news originating on 4Chan identified the wrong person as the perpetrator of the Las Vegas shooting

You know things are bad when you find yourself agreeing with Piers Morgan. Now there’s a sentence that many people never imagined they’d read on this website. His usually very anti-political correctness column was today, entitled: ‘if a Muslim terrorist had committed this Vegas atrocity America would have a slew of new laws in a heartbeat. But because it’s an old white guy with guns NOTHING will happen.’ Yes, you read that right, in the wake of yesterday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas Morgan, it seems, has finally woken up to the existence of white privilege. 

It might be difficult to believe, but this was by no means the most bizarre thing doing the rounds online in the wake of the atrocity. Fake stories about what had happened were promoted by both Facebook and Google as the news about what had actually gone on unfolded, including that there were multiple shooters. The most egregious example has got to be the story which claimed that the shooter was an anti-Trump Democrat. 

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 Of course, we know that Nevada police have now confirmed that the shooter was, in fact, a 64-year old local man named Stephen Paddock who opened fire from his room at the Mandalay Bay hotel, where he was holed up with an army’s worth of ammunition. His exact motives are, as yet, unknown. 

While the US came to terms with the worst mass shooting in its history, the rumour, it seems, began on the alt-right favourite 4Chan. Message board users falsely identified the shooter as an innocent man named Geary Danley and seized on the fact that he was, supposedly, a Democrat. The connection, it seems, was made because the police were looking for a woman named Marilou Danley, who is reportedly the partner of Paddock. As Buzzfeed’s Ryan Broderick tweeted as this was evolving, there were at least six 4Chan threads all pushing this fake story and promoting the idea that Danley was a) responsible and b) a ‘dangerous leftist’.  

This misinformation was then picked up by a blog which, prior to Donald Trump’s presidency, was considered to be no more than a pro-Trump hotbed of conspiracy theories, but now seems to have acquired associated legitimacy by being given Whitehouse accreditation: Gateway Pundit. They published an article about the unsubstantiated story with the following headline: ‘Las Vegas Shooter Reportedly a Democrat Who Like Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army’. ‘Geary Danley, reportedly the murderer of at least 20 concertgoers in Las Vegas, from initial accounts, was a far-left loon,’ Joe Hoft wrote for Gateway Pundit, ‘Per a review of his Facebook account, he was a fan of Rachel Maddow, People’s Action, Democrats, MoveOn.org, etc…’

This is all troubling in and of itself, but what happened next is far worse. The fake story began to trend as a top item on both Facebook and Google. That’s right, a story with unverified sources and unsubstantiated claims made it onto trending lists made it to the top of the pile on two of the world’s biggest news sites because it was picked up by their algorithms. 

The spread of misinformation and fake news following an atrocity or terror attack is not news, but this particular incident raises serious questions about the role played by algorithms in presenting us with information in their wake and confirms that the problem isn't going anywhere. 

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Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt 

Tags: WTF News