Google is too important, and from what I’ve seen reporting on them for 10 years, the company does care about information quality. Even from a pure corporate-trust and brand perspective, wouldn’t it be worth it to have a large enough team to make sure they get these situations right across the globe?
Of course, it is not just Google.
On Facebook, a simple search for “Las Vegas” yields a Group called “Las Vegas Shooting /Massacre,” which sprung up after the shooting and already has more than 5,000 members.
The group is run by Jonathan Lee Riches, who gained notoriety by filing 3,000 frivolous lawsuits while serving a 10 year prison sentence after being convicted for stealing money by impersonating people whose bank credentials had been phished. Now, he calls himself an “investigative journalist” with Infowars, though there is no indication he’s been published on the site, and given that he also lists himself as a former male underwear model at Victoria’s Secret, a former nuclear scientist at Chernobyl, and a former bodyguard at Buckingham Palace, his work history may not be reliable.
The problems with surfacing this man’s group to Facebook users is obvious to literally any human. But to Facebook’s algorithms, it’s just a fast-growing group with an engaged community.
Most people who joined the group looking for information presumably don’t know that the founder is notorious for legal and informational hijinks.
Meanwhile, Kevin Roose of The New York Times pointed out that Facebook’s Trending Stories page was surfacing stories about the shooting from Sputnik, a known source of Russian propaganda. Their statement was, like Google’s, designed to minimize what had happened.
“Our Global Security Operations Center spotted these posts this morning and we have removed them. However, their removal was delayed, allowing them to be screen-captured and circulated online,” a spokesperson responded. “We are working to fix the issue that allowed this to happen in the first place and deeply regret the confusion this caused.”
All across the information landscape, looking for news about the shooting within the dominant platforms delivered horrifying results. “Managing breaking news is an extremely difficult problem but it's incredible that asking the search box of *every major platform* returns raw toxic sewage,” wrote John Hermann, who covers the platforms for The New York Times.
For example, he noted that Google’s conglomerate mate at Alphabet, YouTube, was also surfacing absolutely wild things and no respected news organization.
As news consumers, we can say this: It does not have to be like this. Imagine a newspaper posting unverified rumors about a shooter from a bunch of readers who had been known to perpetuate hoaxes. There would be hell to pay—and for good reason. The standards of journalism are a set of tools for helping to make sense of chaotic situations, in which bad and good information about an event coexist. These technology companies need to borrow our tools—and hire the people to execute on the principles—or stop saying that they care about the quality of information that they deliver to people.
There’s no hiding behind algorithms anymore. The problems cannot be minimized. The machines have shown they are not up to the task of dealing with rare, breaking news events, and it is unlikely that they will be in the near future. More humans must be added to the decision-making process, and the sooner the better.