Google and Facebook Stopping “Fake News” on Las Vegas Shooting Suspect

By June Torres

In an era where the internet is the main place where people access information, Google, Facebook, and other social networks are continuously managing fake news that are publicized on their trafficked sites.

Fake news stories are not a novelty; however, with multiple online avenues, the authenticity of each story becomes more difficult to address. The creation of social networks allows people to exchange information on a much greater scale, allowing prior economic barriers of fake news to be removed. Although there are no current laws or precedents that explicitly define “fake news,” the concept of fake news is generally understood as any news story that intentionally presents and spreads incorrect information.

Last week, distressing false news emerged from the mass shooting in Las Vegas. On October 2, 2017, people worldwide rushed to obtain information regarding the deadliest massacre in the United States. The Las Vegas massacre, which killed at least 59 people and injured more than 500, left the world in fear, sadness, and with many questions. Seeking answers, many searched Google for information about the victims and the suspected shooter.

Many of these searches yielded inaccurate information. According to Google, its computer algorithms displayed misinformation about the shooter’s identity. Before the problem was corrected, Google’s search results displayed in its top stories a discussion thread from an online forum, 4chan, a “notorious spawning ground for Internet hoaxes.” 4chan provided false information about the motivation of the shooter and falsely identified the shooter as Geary Danley, “calling him a leftist and Democratic supporter.” 4chan’s fake news gained traction, and consequently appeared in the top stories of Google, due to “Internet sleuths scour[ing] social media to identify the gunman faster than police.” However, the police later identified the shooter responsible for the Las Vegas massacre. Although the identity of the shooter is now known, his motives for the mass shooting are still unclear.

Like Google, Facebook is an epicenter where many people today gather information on current events. Consequently, Facebook is also dealing with backlash from misinformation posted about the identity of the gunman. On Facebook’s “Safety Check” page, it promoted “stories from right-wing news sites…which falsely identified the suspected shooter and included misleading speculation on his motivation.” Facebook soon removed the fake news that was circulated, and it informed users that it would work on fixing the issue. In the past few months, Facebook has made similar assurances to its users due to the inaccurate posts on their pages, but Facebook and Google have yet to adequately protect their systems from enabling viral speed of misinformation.

The growing volume of digital news reveals the necessity for more sophisticated technology that can recognize false and potentially harmful information. But in the meantime, legal recourse may be an avenue, under defamation law, for an individual who suffered a harm to their reputation due to a defamatory statement. However, an issue with defamatory statements that are made on social media is that simply “retweeting a defamatory statement is probably not going to be enough to qualify for republication.” In addition, suits against online media, such as Google and Facebook, are protected by Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act of 1996. “This federal statute declares that providers of interactive services are not liable for content posted by their users.” Nonetheless, Facebook and Google are careful when removing information from their sites so to avoid the possibility of claims of censorship, and to continue the opportunity for its users to speak freely on these platforms.

It is important to share our ideas, concerns, and desires while using these platforms. However, as users of Facebook, Google, and other social media, it is important to question the information posted on these sites, and to think critically about the impacts of sharing posts and links that contain unsupported statements.

My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the tragedy in Las Vegas.

*Disclaimer: The Colorado Technology Law Journal Blog contains the personal opinions of its authors and hosts, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CTLJ.