A few weeks ago, there was another mass murder in the USA. This time the shooter, a 64-year-old male, holed himself up on the 32rd floor of a casino hotel complex in Las Vegas, Nevada and massacred 60, including himself, and injured more than 500 (at the time of writing). All the victims did wrong was attend a country music concert along with 22,000 or so other people on the Las Vegas ‘casino strip’.
While some may consider country music a crime, most Australians consider the apparent ease of gun ownership in the USA pure insanity. Both of these subjects have been done to death in the past and the reality is that even if the entire 24 million or so of us on this side of the Pacific told the USA’s lawmakers they were crazy to allow the current lax gun laws to continue, it wouldn’t make a scrap of difference. All we can really do to avoid a perceived safety risk is to choose to holiday in an area that you would feel safe in such as North Queensland or Tasmania, New Zealand or Canada — the land of unarmed Americans with universal health care. (No, it’s not original, you can get the coffee mug or t-shirt here). As for country music — well it ain’t gunna kill you!
What we should be concerned about is the reporting of the Las Vegas massacre as it does affect us and how we live. As you would expect, Facebook and Google reported the Las Vegas massacres on their ‘newsfeed’, as obviously, people were ‘reporting’ the incident live on their social media accounts. Media outlets would also be looking at this traffic along with the reports from the police in the Las Vegas area. In this world of instant communication, there is an imperative to be first with the news — in this case who was the person that committed this heinous crime and why did they do it?
Both Google and Facebook promoted incorrect information — including the incorrect identification of the murderer.
Police have identified Stephen Paddock as the suspect who opened fire from a high-rise hotel room, killing scores and injuring hundreds more. But before authorities named the 64-year-old Nevada man, some on the far right falsely identified the man behind the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history as Geary Danley. It’s unclear where exactly the hoax originated, but right-wing users aggressively promoted his name, seizing on evidence that he was a liberal.
On 4chan, the anonymous message board and a favourite platform of the “alt-right”, some noted that Danley was a registered Democrat. Soon after, Gateway Pundit, a conspiracy-laden blog that earned White House credentials under Trump, published an evidence-free story headlined, “Las Vegas Shooter Reportedly a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army”. The piece was based on a review of Facebook “likes”.
Despite the fact that the claims were unproven and coming from non-credible sources, Facebook’s “Safety Check” page, which is supposed to help people connect with loved ones during the crisis, ended up briefly promoting a story that said the shooter had “Trump-hating” views, along with links to a number of other hoaxes and scams, according to screenshots. At the same time, Google users who searched Geary Danley’s name were at one point directed to the 4chan thread filled with false claims.
The right-wing users’ successful manipulation of social media algorithms to politicize a tragedy speaks to a relatively new pattern of online abuse. While users of Twitter and Reddit memorably misidentified the suspect behind the Boston marathon bombing in 2013, fake news during global tragedies and terrorist attacks over the last year has increasingly gone beyond careless reporting and retweeting to overt exploitation and targeted disinformation campaigns.
Danley’s political views may be to the left of the ultra-conservative blogsites, but his only real ‘crime’ is being the ex-husband of the real murderer’s partner, an Australian citizen Marilou Danley, who was in the Philippines at the time of the crime.
She was later cleared of any involvement but on Wednesday police still described her as a "person of interest" who they had many questions for.
She flew into Los Angeles on [the following] Wednesday afternoon and was met by FBI agents.
In the days before instant communication, there is a reasonable bet that had the Las Vegas shootings happened there would be little knowledge of the event until the news was phoned around the world by reporters. The reporters would have typically checked the facts before sending the reports out. While the spread of news would have certainly been slower, the degree of accuracy would have been significantly greater.
Social media sources such as Facebook and Google claim (rightly or wrongly) that their newsfeeds, where content is usually generated by computers running data quickly through complicated algorithms, can approximate the importance of the news to their customers. To an extent, it does work as the murder of a number of innocent people in Las Vegas is more important to the majority of people than all the cat photos or menu choices that were posted on social media at the same time. The problem with algorithms is if people can construct them, other people can deconstruct them. As The Guardian’s report above suggests, either the algorithm is incapable of sorting fact from fiction as it uses non-credible sources or the non-credible sources have deconstructed the algorithm sufficiently to skew the results.
Social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google are large. Accordingly, they need lots of revenue to survive. As their business models are based on a ‘free’ service, they rely on advertising and selling their intellectual property such as search optimisation products to generate the revenue. So, the longer you ‘read’ Facebook or one of its competitors each time you access it, the more advertising you see. The social media company can then demonstrate that ‘another set of eyes’ has seen the advertising for something than may vaguely interest you (again served up to you based on an algorithm of what you access when looking at your social media accounts) and charge the advertiser a small additional amount. For the business model to work, they have to convince you to turn to them frequently to catch up on ‘news’ that is relevant to you at the time, rather than turn on the radio, buy a paper, look at the website of a ‘traditional’ media organisation such as the ABC or watch the news on TV, so immediacy seems to be of a higher rating within the algorithms than accuracy. It is how they make the money. They also have to confirm your existing bias, so for example if you love cats and dislike budgies, your ‘newsfeed’ on your favourite social media application will serve you up stories of cute cats and their goings on rather than videos of budgies behaving badly. Again, it is all about ensuring you interact on their product, rather than the opposition.
Facebook recently sent a senior employee, Adam Mosseri, to Australia to discuss ‘fake news’, how the news feed worked and other related issues with a number of media organisations such as Fairfax and News Corp.
"It is bad for business," Mosseri told journalists at a briefing. "It [fake news] erodes trust in our platform, not only with people, but with publishers and with advertisers. We are an ad-based business, and that can be really, really painful."
Fake news shot to prominence during the US presidential election campaign when sites masquerading as authentic news outlets published completely untrue stories — that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump, or that the Democrats were operating a human trafficking ring from a DC pizza joint — that subsequently spread like wildfire on Facebook.
Despite the claim they are an ‘ad-based business’, Facebook and others curate a newsfeed where reports of mass murders in the USA can be incorrectly attributed to the wrong person for a considerable time after the correct information is widely available
A full three days after the incident, it wasn't hard to find questionable, hyper-partisan content from the US related to the Vegas shooting incident on Facebook.
A quick search I did on the social network brought up a story claiming that an Australian eyewitness had indirectly revealed the "SHOCKING TRUTH" about the attack — that it was part of a vast conspiracy involving a New World Order and the corporate media.
Another post, published in August, but which seemed to have resurfaced in the wake of Las Vegas, said Australia's gun control laws were "collapsing".
This is the problem for Australia and critical analysis of what passes for news in the current environment of hyper-partisan politics. Claims that gun laws are failing in Australia are false but those that want to believe it usually won’t double check with an independent source, especially from across the Pacific. While ‘dumb luck’ may be a very small part of the success of political parties such as One Nation, marketing and ‘suitable' content keep the interest going. They too have the ability to purchase the intellectual smarts to understand their target audience and reach out to them through social media. In the past few weeks, the Queensland division of One Nation announced a series of policies for the upcoming state election.
These include “no body, no parole” laws for homicide convictions that Labor passed this year and mandatory sentences for possession of illegal weapons such as sawn-off shotguns that were passed by the former Liberal National party government.
Regardless of the worth of the particular measures, empty announcements such as the ones by One Nation in Queensland do make it onto social media platforms, through advertising if nothing else. The social media companies know and understand your likes and dislikes and feed you product placements to confirm your biases (it is how they make money). One Nation’s Queensland followers will be served information via social media claiming One Nation is responsible for the measures rather than one of the two larger political parties in Queensland. If someone dared dispute the real ownership of the policy to this group, it would likely be declared to be a conspiracy or ‘fake news’.
According to Roger McNamee, an early investor in both Facebook and Google
Facebook and Google get their revenue from advertising, the effectiveness of which depends on gaining and maintaining consumer attention. Borrowing techniques from the gambling industry, Facebook, Google and others exploit human nature, creating addictive behaviours that compel consumers to check for new messages, respond to notifications, and seek validation from technologies whose only goal is to generate profits for their owners.
The people at Facebook and Google believe that giving consumers more of what they want and like is worthy of praise, not criticism. What they fail to recognize is that their products are not making consumers happier or more successful. Like gambling, nicotine, alcohol or heroin, Facebook and Google — most importantly through its YouTube subsidiary — produce short-term happiness with serious negative consequences in the long term. Users fail to recognize the warning signs of addiction until it is too late. There are only 24 hours in a day, and technology companies are making a play for all them. The CEO of Netflix recently noted that his company’s primary competitor is sleep.
While ‘fake news’ is an indecisive term and based heavily on your personal beliefs and opinions, it seems lousy reporting relies on algorithms and machine learning to verify the news rather than people.
What do you think?
Let us know in comments below.
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