BREAKING NEWS Breaking News Full Story

Tech's biggest companies are spreading conspiracy theories. Again.

The most common line in Silicon Valley right now may be: We'll try to do better next time.When Facebook inadve...

Posted: Feb 22, 2018 8:34 AM
Updated: Feb 22, 2018 8:34 AM

The most common line in Silicon Valley right now may be: We'll try to do better next time.

When Facebook inadvertently promoted conspiracy theories shared by users following a recent Amtrak crash, the company said it was "going to work to fix the product."

When Google shared a conspiracy theory in its search results after a mass shooting last year in Texas, the company said it would "continue to look at ways to improve."

And when Google's YouTube spread conspiracy theories in the aftermath of the devastating shooting in Las Vegas, the video service decided to update its algorithm to prevent it from happening again.

But then it did happen again.

On Wednesday, YouTube and Facebook were each forced to issue yet another mea culpa for promoting conspiracy theories about David Hogg, a student who survived the mass shooting at a Florida high school last week.

The top trending video on YouTube early Wednesday suggested in all capital letters that Hogg, who has emerged as a leading voice for gun control since the shooting, was actually an "actor."

YouTube later removed the video, but not before it was viewed hundreds of thousands of times. In a statement, YouTube said its system "misclassified" the video because it featured footage from a reputable news broadcast.

"This video should never have appeared in Trending," a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement provided to CNN, which concluded with a familiar line: "We are working to improve our systems moving forward."

On Facebook, Hogg was a trending topic for users Wednesday. But several of the top results for his name showed similar theories about Hogg being a paid actor. (Hogg, for his part, has knocked down these claims.)

Mary deBree, Facebook's head of content policy, called the posts "abhorrent" in a statement and said Facebook was removing the content.

Related: YouTube changes search to combat Las Vegas conspiracy videos

Conspiracy theories are not new, certainly in American life. But the potential for tech platforms to supercharge the reach of these theories is a societal threat unique to the modern era.

This familiar cycle of grandiose promises and atonement on this issue speaks to deeper concerns about whether tech companies are able, or willing, to adequately police their own massive platforms.

In the last week alone, Google has been called out for making offensive suggestions for search results about black culture and poverty, and several big tech companies have been mentioned in a federal indictment about Russian election meddling.

To use Silicon Valley's preferred parlance, it's now hard to escape the conclusion that the spreading of misinformation and hoaxes is a feature, not a bug, of social media platforms -- and their business models.

Facebook and Google built incredibly profitable businesses by serving content they don't pay for or vet to billions of users, with ads placed against that content. The platforms developed better and better targeting to buoy their ad businesses, but not necessarily better content moderation to buoy user discourse.

Under pressure from regulators and advertisers in recent months, the two companies have finally pledged to hire thousands of additional workers to moderate their platforms. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO and co-founder, told investors in November the move could cut into the company's profit margins.

But even this could prove to be a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed.

Facebook has said it expects to have 20,000 people working on safety and security issues by the end of this year. With 2.1 billion users, that is the equivalent of having one cop on patrol for every 100,000 citizens.

"People overestimate Facebook's resources and underestimate just how much content Facebook handles," Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former product manager at Facebook who helped develop its ad targeting system, said in an email. "Facebook has to go through literally billions of posts (photos, text, check-ins, etc.) a day."

As a result, he says, Facebook "simply cannot manually review each and every news post." The company often ends up relying on its users to flag questionable content. Martinez says this can create a "time lag" before it gets the attention of Facebook staff.

Google faces a similar problem. Even as it ramps up hiring, YouTube does not have humans curating which videos appear in its trending lists because it has so many trending tabs being constantly updated all over the world.

As with so many things in the tech industry, the preferred solution is more technology, which allows the companies to keep operating at the massive scale that makes them attractive propositions to investors and advertisers.

Both Facebook and Google are investing in artificial intelligence solutions to clean up their platforms. AI may allow the companies to better police their platforms without having to hire hundreds of thousands of workers.

But if this kind of panacea arrives at all, it will be in a distant future. Zuckerberg has said it will take "many years to fully develop these systems." In the meantime, new conspiracy theories are waiting to trend.

Huntsville
Scattered Clouds
75° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 75°
Florence
Scattered Clouds
77° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 72°
Feels Like: 79°
Fayetteville
Overcast
75° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 75°
Decatur
Broken Clouds
76° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 76°
Scottsboro
Overcast
75° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 75°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 18766

Reported Deaths: 651
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Mobile2321118
Jefferson1901104
Montgomery185843
Tuscaloosa83616
Marshall7089
Franklin5858
Lee56234
Shelby52819
Tallapoosa43466
Butler42118
Walker3862
Elmore3749
Chambers36026
Madison3534
Unassigned3062
Morgan3021
Baldwin2939
Dallas2923
Lowndes26512
Etowah26312
DeKalb2573
Autauga2415
Coffee2391
Sumter2287
Houston2265
Bullock2176
Pike2120
Colbert1902
Hale1859
Russell1810
Barbour1771
Marengo1756
Lauderdale1722
Calhoun1673
Wilcox1577
Choctaw15310
Cullman1521
Clarke1492
St. Clair1351
Randolph1287
Dale1240
Marion12411
Pickens1205
Talladega1195
Limestone1080
Chilton1071
Greene954
Macon934
Winston910
Jackson833
Covington821
Henry822
Crenshaw783
Bibb761
Escambia753
Washington736
Blount631
Lawrence510
Monroe462
Geneva440
Perry430
Conecuh411
Coosa401
Cherokee383
Clay282
Lamar280
Fayette160
Cleburne151

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 25190

Reported Deaths: 401
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby5546124
Davidson551666
Trousdale13944
Rutherford134328
Hamilton96419
Sumner93846
Lake8350
Bledsoe6101
Williamson58911
Putnam5246
Robertson5235
Tipton4613
Wilson4498
Knox4355
Out of TN4264
Bedford2974
Montgomery2863
Rhea2170
Hardeman2020
Madison1732
Bradley1661
Macon1663
Loudon1610
Unassigned1610
McMinn14614
Fayette1362
Cheatham1350
Dickson1200
Cumberland1202
Maury1071
Sevier972
Blount933
Coffee780
Washington750
Monroe713
Wayne640
Gibson631
Sullivan602
Lauderdale591
Hickman580
Dyer570
Franklin541
Greene522
Unicoi480
Obion453
Marion441
Hamblen422
Anderson422
DeKalb380
Smith361
Hawkins342
Marshall331
Lawrence330
Haywood332
White330
Cannon320
Overton320
Henry320
Grundy311
Lincoln290
Jefferson290
Carroll281
Meigs270
Warren260
Weakley260
Perry240
Hardin222
Cocke210
Sequatchie200
Johnson190
Polk190
Jackson190
Carter191
Campbell181
Morgan170
Crockett162
Roane160
Henderson150
Humphreys151
McNairy150
Grainger130
Giles130
Stewart130
Claiborne120
Scott120
Fentress120
Chester120
Clay80
Houston80
Benton71
Moore50
Decatur50
Van Buren40
Union40
Lewis30
Pickett30
Hancock10

 

 

Community Events