Minutes after officials identified the shooter in Sunday’s Texas church massacre, conspiracy theorists began spreading misinformation online that tied the man to the left-wing movement known as antifa.
Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube helped make those claims real, despite law enforcement officials making no connection between Devin Kelley and the loosely organized antifa movement that sprung into the national spotlight at protests in the past year.
That rapid surfacing of information with little grounding beyond speculation and assumption has again thrown into question whether Google, Twitter and Facebook do enough to flag false information when it surfaces in the chaotic aftermath of a disaster — as it did in the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting.
If you Googled Kelley’s full name, results of tweets that linked Kelley with antifa showed up on Google’s search page as “Popular on Twitter” results, directly below its top stories.
A day later, those tweets had stopped surfacing. But typing Devin Patrick Kelley into the Google search engine, the third “Instant Search” result was still “Devin Patrick Kelley antifa.” A similar search on Google’s YouTube, after legitimate news sources like CBS and CNN, presented an entry from Patriotic Beast, with a video called “Devin Patrick Kelley Antifa Confirmed, Proof.”
Just last month YouTube said it had changed its search algorithm to promote videos from more mainstream news outlets in search results after people looking for details on the Las Vegas shooting were served up conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Google said in a statement to USA TODAY Monday that the Twitter results “are changing second by second and represent a dynamic conversation that is going on in near real-time” and noted that they appear after news sources, including Top Stories. “We’ll continue to look at ways to improve how we rank tweets that appear in Search,” Google said in a statement.
Several far right standard-bearers made the link between antifa and the shooter in the hours after the shooting in posts that were widely shared. Mike Cernovich, conservative blogger and author of Gorilla Mindset, Sunday night tweeted that photos of the suspect were “consistent with profile of antifa member. This is looking more and more like antifa terror.” It was retweeted 1,565 times.
Photos of Texas shooter is consistent with profile of Antifa member. This is looking more and more like Antifa terror. https://t.co/6pJcbCWZBo
— Mike Cernovich 🇺🇸 (@Cernovich) November 5, 2017
Was this part of the Antifa revolution against Christians and conservatives or a Isis op? Live from the church.. https://t.co/rcSU9Z8eeWpic.twitter.com/o2FSezFqCa
— Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones) November 5, 2017
Several tweets mentioned Kelley’s Facebook page, which allegedly showed multiple posts tying him to antifa. But Antifa United posted on its own page late Sunday that the posts were fake.
Facebook said in a statement to USA TODAY that it was increasing its investment in its strategy to “combat misinformation. … We’ve also created tools to help people trust what they’re reading, such as making it easier for people to report misleading stories and providing additional information about an article, including information about the publisher and the types of stories published. ”
Jonathon Morgan, a former digital advisor to the Obama-era State Department, and outspoken critic of social media’s presentation of news, said in a tweet that Google fails to serve its customers when it recommends conspiracy theorists as legitimate info sources in the aftermath of a tragedy.
He believes the companies are taking the situation “more seriously” today than 6 months ago, but “they’re not really owning up to the problem. It runs much deeper than they’re willing to admit.”
He tweeted a screenshot showing Google search results for Devin Patrick Kelley, which directed users to the Twitter feed of Info Wars editor Paul Watson.
Google directs users to the Twitter feed of InfoWars editor Paul Watson in search results for Devin Patrick Kelley. pic.twitter.com/AwQ5MasJMr
— Jonathon Morgan (@jonathonmorgan) November 6, 2017
Texas Department of Public Safety official Freeman Martin on Monday said Kelley’s motivation did not seem motivated by religion or investigated as terrorism, but instead stemmed from a domestic dispute.
Google’s ‘Popular On Twitter’ news feature is a misinformation gutter. Search for Devin Patrick Kelley just now surfaced these four items. pic.twitter.com/06rcPOgx5b
— Justin Hendrix (@justinhendrix) November 6, 2017