On Sunday night, a gunman killed more than 50 people at a country music festival outside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. On Monday morning, authorities identified the gunman as Stephen Paddock. But in an episode that has become sadly familiar in the immediate aftermath of such tragedies, amateur sleuths on 4chan incorrectly identified the shooter as another man—and this time Google helped signal boost their misinformation.
As BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick first pointed out on Twitter, when you entered a Google search for “Geary Danley” this morning, the site displayed links to 4chan’s pol (politically incorrect) message board in its Top Stories section wrongly identifying him as the shooter. Mashable was able to replicate the result, but the links no longer appear in the module. We have reached out to Google for comment.
For far-right pages like pol, incorrectly identifying Danley as the shooter was politically convenient. As a (since-deleted) Gateway Pundit article stated, Danley is “Reportedly a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army” based on information gleaned from his Facebook page.
One might assume that the carousel of stories at the top of your Google search would be the most relevant and credible links based on their query, but to make that very reasonable assumption would be a mistake. The criteria for what gets a spot in the highly-coveted space remains vague. The links certainly don’t have to be factually accurate, given that a climate change denial story has appeared in the module. And it’s also evident that the system can be gamed. In February, a LinkedIn blogger wrote over 150 articles about how to stream the Super Bowl consisting of nonsensical strings of keywords aimed at fooling Google’s search algorithm. It worked.
Today, Google helped further the agenda of the far-right by promoting their threads misidentifying the gunman. If the search giant comments at all, it will likely blame the mishap on an improperly audited algorithm. But as people turn to Google’s search bar for information on the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, the tech behemoth has a responsibility to ensure its users aren’t being led astray by a bunch of neo-Nazis.
Update 12:15pm: A Google spokesperson provided the following statement:
“Unfortunately, early this morning we were briefly surfacing an inaccurate 4chan website in our Search results for a small number of queries. 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.”
Update 4:09pm: A Google spokesperson sent an unprompted email offering additional information about how Top Stories works and what lead to the 4chan links being included in the module. According to Google, inclusion in Top Stories is determined by a number of factors, including both the “authoritativeness” of a site and how “fresh” the link is. The company said the Top Stories module for searches of “Geary Danley” was triggered by an increase in queries of that name. Since 4chan is arguably not an authoritative website, the freshness of the story seemingly pulled the link into Google’s module.