As information about Sunday’s massacre in Las Vegas emerges, the United States has reverted to its usual polarized self, forcing voices on either side of the gun control debate into ever-decreasing circles of finger-pointing, anger and round-the-clock trolling.
But amid the fallout of the country’s worst mass shooting since 1898, another crisis is deepening. Online brands like Facebook and Google have previously committed to combating fake news and conspiracy theories on their social media platforms. But within hours of Sunday’s killings it became clear that little, or nothing, has changed.
Among the fakery dispersed online were claims the shooter was an Islamic State terrorist; that he was a member of antifascist group Antifa; an anti-President Trump fanatic; part of a team of gunmen; and many cases of false identity.
One Facebook case was particularly egregious: a so-called “safety check”, whereby users can make themselves safe in the event of a major loss-of-life incident, displayed a post from Alt-Right News in which the killer was incorrectly identified as a Trump-hating liberal. One of the platform’s “trending topics” linked to an article by Russian state-owned media Sputnik, in which the shooter was associated with ISIS.
YouTube promoted videos claiming the whole incident to have been a hoax, or a “false flag” operation – a term conspiracists use to suggest an incident was perpetrated by the government to meet a political end. “When I see my wife fighting for her life with a gunshot wound to her chest, and my daughter was also shot, it’s pretty conclusive evidence that it did happen,” Stephan Melanson, whose wife and daughter were wounded in the attack, told The Guardian.
Meanwhile legitimate news articles have been buried beneath speculation, conjecture and false invective, flooding the Internet with fake news and damaging information about a news story whose details have already opened up huge fissures in American public discourse.
It is clear that, despite claims to the contrary, neither Facebook nor Google have done much to prevent the spread of fake news across their platforms. All too often the public treats these outlets as benign, black canvasses onto which people should be free to express whatever they want. Newspapers, online media outlets and television stations are not held to the same, low standards.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has already admitted nonchalance in denying that his company played a key role in last year’s US elections. And as an increasing number of people get their daily news from social media, it is vital that Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley peers play a key role in preventing the spread of harmful and deliberately obfuscating material.
If they do not, they will quickly find themselves on the wrong side of history.