YouTube promoted a video claiming to show evidence that one of the survivors of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, is a paid actor. Similar videos and articles are showing up on YouTube and other social media sites like Facebook. The issue is an example of a potentially troubling problem for social media sites and how news is delivered to the world. Following is a transcript of the video.
The fake news problem on social media is not going away. We learned that firsthand in the wake of the Florida shooting that took 17 lives. After the shooting, a lot of student activists from the school, started speaking out for more gun control. One of those students was David Hogg. Hogg has appeared on many news outlets, and eventually conservatives started to take notice. And some conservatives started to promote a new conspiracy theory that Hogg was a paid actor to promote liberal agendas, like gun control. At first those conspiracy theories kind of bubbled under the surface, until it broke through on YouTube. YouTube promoted a video saying Hogg was a paid actor, as the top video on its trending section.
Within hours, YouTube caught the mistake and said it was their fault. YouTube said its algorithm detected that the video was an authoritative news source, and therefore was able to make it through to the top of the trending section. But that’s not where the problem ended. If you searched for David Hogg’s name on YouTube, dozens of videos came up propagating the same conspiracy theory. It happened on Facebook too.
In the trending section on Facebook, if you clicked on David Hogg’s name, you saw some legitimate news articles about him, but you also saw a lot more of the same conspiracy theories we were seeing on YouTube and a lot of fringe conservative websites. Facebook called that content abhorrent and a product manager told me they were taking it down. But this gets to a larger issue. Every time a major news event happens, especially tragedies like mass shootings, the social networks are perverted and abused to promote conspiracy theories like the one we saw about David Hogg. And it goes to an even deeper problem.
Big tech companies like to say that their platforms can’t be, quote, arbiters of the truth. And that really means, they view the truth as subjective instead of objective. And if they’re starting from a point where the truth is subjective, there’s no way the fake news problem can actually be fixed. Facebook is trying to play the role where users decide what are trusted and authoritative news sources. For example, Facebook is issuing surveys to users, asking if they believe certain outlets are trusted and authoritative sources. However, they haven’t said how they’re going to prevent these surveys from being gamed. It could easily lead to more fake news in your newsfeed. One of the best ways to combat this problem, will take an entire rethinking of the ways these tech platforms operate.
They need to realize they have the same responsibility that traditional news organizations have. That means editors, that means fact checkers, that means people monitoring the content to make sure what gets out there is as close to the truth as possible. And when they mess up, there need to be consequences, just like there are consequences for normal media organizations. When a journalist screws up, he has to issue a correction. He gets fired. We don’t see those kind of repercussions with social media. Both Facebook and YouTube have said they’re going to hire thousands of human content monitors to address this issue. But so far, we haven’t seen any indication that that is working. We don’t know who these content monitors are, what rules they’re operating under, and even if they’re full time employees of these companies.
Facebook, Google, Twitter, they’re all operating from a standpoint that the truth is subjective. And until they change that mindset, the fake news problem can’t be fixed.