Could the Google “Top stories” algorithm foment violence?

Human beings have always loved to trade rumors, but the Internet has drastically increased their velocity - while at the same time cleverly camouflaging their veracity. As we all know by now, rumors have been weaponized into something widely known as “fake news”, but we prefer to call it “junk news.”  

Some things about rumors have not changed. They still begin with a human being embellishing a fact, twisting a tail or telling an outright fib, but to what extent is this fueled by the automation we have created and embraced?

A case in point is Google’s role in fomenting concern that the anarchistic anti-fascist movement “Antifa” is plotting the start of the Civil War in the U.S. on November 4.

There is no earthly reason to believe that this is true and yet the software that Google uses to Hoover the web for news (its algorithm) evidently is unable to separate this rumor from verified fact. Indeed, if you used Google recently as we did to search the phrase “Antifa November 4” and “Antifa civil war November,” you will get a lot of hits that will confirm this conspiracy theory.

Check out the screenshots that we captured on October 4. The “Top Stories” boxes at the top of the search provide the veneer of mainstream validation for this unfounded idea launched at the fringes of civil society.

Google’s algorithm is spreading the notion that Antifa is planning a “Civil War to overthrow the US Government” and is planning a “Communist Revolution for America on November 4.”

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It may look credible but it is not. In this case, the rumor seems to begin with a traffic-stopping protest on the 101 in Los Angeles on September 26. Clearly, November 4 will likely begin a nationwide protest against racism, fascism and the Trump Administration. How that protest on the highway became grist for junk news content suggesting a civil war is brewing is unpacked well in this article on heavy.com

Google and its algorithm became the focus of a lot of criticism this week when those same “Top stories” boxes offered up misinformation about the identity of the Las Vegas shooter. The source: the bridge under which so many trolls live; a website called 4chan.  It touts itself as being “politically incorrect”, but it is more accurately described as a cesspool of hate, anger and intolerance.

In response to the incident, a Google spokesperson told several news outlets that “within hours, the 4chan story was algorithmically replaced by relevant results. This should not have appeared for any queries, and we’ll continue to make algorithmic improvements to prevent this from happening in the future.”

But if they have made those improvements, clearly they are not enough. We asked Google to comment on the “Antifa Civil War” top stories boxes, but the company declined.

Google protects its algorithm like Coca-Cola protects its secret recipe, so it is a black box for those of us on the outside. But the company did shed a little more light on what might’ve happened here. Apparently the “Top stories” algorithm favors recently published content for search terms which are not widely used. So if someone is searching for something unusual or even unique, Google’s software appears to weigh “freshness” over the credibility of the source.

This has grown increasingly important as more and more people trust search engines to filter the wheat from the “junk news” chaff. In a global survey conducted by the PR firm Edelman, 64% said they trusted search engines for their news and information, more than any other source.

So the real question is, how unusual is this? Are these digital blips or little-noticed ingredients fueling the spread of “junk news” propagated by the likes of 4chan?

If the “Top stories” feature continues to function this way, it could have significant impact on the spread of misinformation.

Imagine this scenario: you hear the crazy rumor from your mother in-law’s friend that a group is planning to launch a civil war in the United States next month, so you decide to Google “Antifa civil war November” assuming it has no basis in fact.  

The answer you get from Google is shocking: there are multiple news stories from distinct outlets with headlines that seem to confirm the idea.  Without digging a little deeper, you could easily leave with your paranoia reinforced.

In fact, if you look closely at the results of our Google search, you will see that article from heavy.com debunking this sits at the top beneath the articles highlighted in the boxes. So the facts are there if you just take a moment to research before sharing.

So here are the facts that we have verified: The group that is organizing the protests starting on November 4 is called refusefascism.org.

Sunsara Taylor is with the organization and says that they are planning “a mass non-violent political protest.” She says “the misinformation and lies being spread by the alt-right echo chamber about Antifa planning a civil war...are lies through and through.”  

Taylor herself does not identify as “Antifa” but did say that they welcome protestors from all backgrounds, including those “who identify as Antifa, as well as Hillary supporters, Bernie people…”

For many online conspiracies, a Google search is likely to return a fact-check article right near the top if it exists.  But until a false claim is debunked, the “Top stories” can have potentially dangerous implications.  In this case, the risk is great. If groups opposed to Antifa believe the conspiracy and feel compelled by a desire to defend their country, this piece of fake information could lead to some real bloodshed.

References to violence against “Antifa” can be found throughout various threads on 4chan and Reddit about Refuse Fascism’s plans to begin protesting on November 4th.  

One Reddit commenter states “If shit hits the fan in my town… they'll need to send the coroner because there are a lot of retired Navy vets who will protect themselves against antifa. Lots purple and green haired gender neutrals will be dead in the streets.”

Source: Reddit.

Source: Reddit.

On 4chan, a commenter posts: “Guess we need to all buy Dodge Challengers then” - a reference to the vehicle used to kill a protester in Charlottesville.

Source: 4chan.

Source: 4chan.

For their part, the Refuse Fascism protesters remain resolute in their desire to protest. “We are not going to be deterred,” says Taylor. “It does pose a risk, but not acting is riskier.”

 

Banner image credit: Refuse Fascism.


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Cameron Hickey is an Emmy Award winning journalist, cinematographer and hacker focused on human rights, poverty, and science. He is the principal shooter for MOBProd. He is currently running a project tracking the spread of junk news.

 

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Miles O'Brien is a veteran, award-winning science journalist. Previously an anchor for CNN, he now charts his own path at Miles O'Brien Productions.