YouTube is promoting conspiracy theory videos claiming that survivors of last week’s Florida school shooting are “crisis actors”, in the latest example of technology companies failing to tackle disinformation.
Many of the top results for searches for David Hogg, a student survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school, are videos from alternative news channels suggesting he was an actor hired by gun control advocates to push an anti-gun agenda.
One such clip briefly became YouTube’s No 1 trending video on Wednesday. YouTube later removed the video for violating its policy on harassment and bullying, as the platform doesn’t have a specific policy for misinformation.
“I am not a crisis actor,” Hogg told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I’m someone who had to witness this and live through this and I continue to be having to do that.”
Hogg is one of many students from the school to make it clear that “thoughts and prayers” alone won’t cut it in the aftermath of such a tragedy. He and others, including the 18-year-old Emma Gonzales, who made a widely shared speech attacking the president directly, have used their own social media channels and interviews with traditional media outlets to call for gun control.
Rightwing and alternative news sites including Gateway Pundit and Infowars have responded by attacking the students, with some using the fact that Hogg’s father works for the FBI to speculate that he could be part of a broader anti-Trump conspiracy. The attacks on the Florida schoolchildren have been amplified on social media, with Russian troll networks hijacking hashtags and feeding divisiveness over the gun control debate.
While conspiracy theories about mass shootings are nothing new in America, some fear that the algorithms that govern our information ecosystem can be gamed in a way that exacerbates the problem. As these conspiracy theory videos and articles rack up clicks, they bubble to the top of search rankings, drowning out more reputable media outlets.
In the days after the Florida shooting, it appeared that YouTube was having some success in keeping conspiracy theories out of its top results on some of the more generic search terms such as “Florida shooting” and “Parkland school”. However, results for names like David Hogg highlight the enormous challenge the platform faces.
“If we think about a taxonomy of content that’s adjudicated on social media –copyrighted material, sexually explicit content, hate speech all the way to misinformation – I would say that misinformation is the most difficult for platforms to contend with,” said Sarah T Roberts, a UCLA professor who studies large-scale moderation of online platforms.
YouTube’s challenge is potentially greater because of the way that it allows creators to generate a cut of advertising revenue from popular videos. “It’s pretty much a neon sign saying ‘upload here’ to anyone with a fringe conspiracy mindset,” said Roberts. “To what extent does the platform profit off that?”
A YouTube spokeswoman told the Guardian that it started rolling out changes to better surface authoritative news sources in search results, particularly around breaking news events.
“We’ve seen improvements, but in some circumstances these changes are not working quickly enough,” she said, adding that the company had also updated its harassment policy to include hoax videos that target the victims of tragedies.
If platforms such as YouTube don’t take this challenge seriously, users will stop trusting them and start to drift away, said Joan Donovan, of the group Data & Society, who recently co-authored a report about content moderation after “fake news”.
“These kind of conspiracy theories are easily mapped. You can see the same people sharing #pizzagate are sharing the crisis actor conspiracy theory. There are things that can be done,” Donovan added.
The problem is not a new one for Google’s video platform. After the Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 people and injured hundreds more, videos claiming the attack was a “hoax” and a “false flag” spread rapidly on YouTube, earning millions of views.
Following criticism from survivors and victims’ relatives over the prominence of hoax claims, YouTube tweaked its search algorithms in an effort to better promote reputable sources.
However, when a gunman killed 26 people at a small-town Texas church the following month, it was clear that the changes had not been effective. Search results on both Google and YouTube amplified the false news that Devin Kelley, the man accused of the massacre, was linked to anti-fascist and leftwing movements. At the time a YouTube spokesperson admitted the site had problems and said: “There is still more work to do, but we’re making progress.”
YouTube users upload more than 400 hours of video content to the site each hour, and content is typically only removed for violation of its policies after being flagged by a user or caught by an artificial intelligence system at the point of upload. Once flagged, content is reviewed by human moderators.
In December, Google announced it was hiring thousands of new moderators after facing widespread criticism for allowing child abuse videos and other offensive content to flourish on YouTube.