Google mistakenly spread misinformation about the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas by giving its “Top Stories” stamp of approval to two 4chan threads identifying the wrong man as the shooter. Google’s algorithm apparently favored “fresh” content around a little-used search term (the man’s name) above more authoritative sources. Google has apologized for including the “inaccurate” web pages in its top results.
A 4chan-inspired conspiracy theory wrongly identified “Geary Danley” as the gunman. Geary Danley became a perfect target for some alt-right trolls after they found he had liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org, and several anti-Trump, left-wing pages. The conspiracy continued on to say that the F.B.I. had already linked him to the Islamic State, and that information that he had recently converted to Islam was being suppressed by the mainstream news organizations.
Geary Danley happens to be the ex-husband of Marilou Danley, a woman police named as a “person of interest” following the mass shooting. She was later identified as a companion of 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, the dead suspected gunman. The Las Vegas shooting attributed to him left more than 50 dead and over 500 injured.
That the Google News algorithm would put 4chan threads on top of search is a crazy idea. 4Chan is a notoriously noxious online message board with a large far-right user base. One of their discussion threads spent hours at the top of the site’s search results for the man’s name. Some 4chan threads have now been deleted after the release of information on the real suspect by the police.
As the 4chan incident shows, Google’s algorithm still has blind spots. This year, the company hired an army of human quality raters to manually evaluate web pages to train the Search algorithm and to flag offensive and factually incorrect material. A Google spokesman said, “This should not have appeared for any queries, and we’ll continue to make algorithmic improvements to prevent this from happening in the future.”
“Top Stories” has only been part of Google Search on desktop since the end of 2016. Google has refused to explain just what makes a particular search term appear for a “Top Stories” carousel. The company would only say that it uses a special set of signals to detect whether users might be interested in seeing fresh or “breaking” links.