The Confluence of Terror & the Internet

On Sunday night, tragic events unfolded at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. A gunman, later identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, opened fired on a crowd enjoying a country music festival. Fifty-nine people were killed and more than 520 others sustained injuries.

Paddock is believed to have acted alone, and was found dead in a hotel room after the incident occurred. He fired the shots from the room he was staying in, surrounded by an array of other firearms. This is the deadliest mass-shooting in recent U.S. history, and new information is still coming in.

Following the event, many people shared photos and videos from the incident that they managed to record while the events were unfolding. Warning: the following videos are graphic and may disturb some viewers.

Social media has provided survivors with an outlet for their feelings and a way to share that terrifying experience with their followers. While I’m sure some would likely find the sharing of this content objectionable, I do not see a problem with it. In my opinion, our country is in major need of gun control reform. If people virtually experience the horror of being a potential target, then perhaps political change can be a reality. Unfortunately, the problem is incredibly complex and involves the NRA’s chokehold on politicians more than widespread public opinion. But the video evidence certainly doesn’t hurt the case for better gun control.

Unfortunately, the internet and social media gave a platform to those with a negative agenda as well. After the massacre, search results and social media were flooded with trolls, hoaxes, clickbait, propaganda, and fake news. The shooting comes at a particularly interesting time when it comes to this issue. “Fake news” and misinformation has dominated the conversation in recent months, and the search for truth in a sea of misinformation has become a challenge. On this past Saturday, Mark Zuckerberg posted on Facebook apologizing for the way his social media channel has been used recently.

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Tech giants like Facebook, Google, & Twitter have made efforts to change their algorithms and implement new features to help hinder the spread of false information. However, that didn’t stop the internet from making the worst of a tragic situation.

On Twitter, internet trolls circulated an image of comedian Sam Hyde with sensationalist headlines proclaiming a man named Samir Al-Hajeed to be the Las Vegas shooter. This is a part of a meme to blame any shooting on Hyde; the same happened after the attacks at San Bernardino and UCLA. Of course, the exact reason why he was chosen to be the target of this hoax is unclear.

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One of the most popular lies for trolls to spread is that of a missing relative or friend. The man in the photo below is a prominent porn star named Johnny Sins. The tweet asks for people to retweet and like in an effort to find “my dad”. Sins was not the only one used to gain retweets and followers. Many fake tweets seeking the Twitter communities’ help in finding a lost loved one popped up following the incident, as seen in the photos below.

The problem here is that the misinformation is further spread by people who are genuinely trying to do the right thing. The shares and likes are coming from well-intentioned Twitter users who truly believe the photos are of real potential victims.

Then there is the controversy over Geary Danley. Police believe that Paddock was alone in his plans to attack, but he did live with a woman named Marilou Danley in Nevada. While the police were looking for her in the hours following the shooting, she was later determined to be out of the country in Tokyo and not believed to have been involved.

That did not stop the alt-right from taking this information, drawing false conclusions, and then sensationalizing them to the highest degree. They chose Geary Danley, who is a presumed relative and Facebook friend of Marilou Danley, as the target. He was chosen due to the fact that he had liked pages such as: Thank You Obama, Anti-Trump Army, Rachel Maddow, Not My President, Proud to Be A Democrat, and Impeach Trump. By being a strong democrat with a tenuous link to being the shooter, Danley presented a story that was completely desirable for the alt-right to spread. And so they did.

It started on 4chan, with a thread that spread like wildfire. Then, an Everipedia post claiming him to be the shooter racked up 77,000 views as of Monday morning (it has since been taken down). Before long, pictures and personal details from his Facebook were plastered all over the web. Then The Gateway Pundit published an article asserting Danley was indeed the shooter and “associated with the Anti-Trump Army.” 

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The aforementioned 4chan thread identifying him as the shooter soon appeared on Google’s top stories widget. Google quickly released a statement apologizing:

“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.”

Even Facebook’s “Safety Check” feature, whereby users near the location of an incident “check in” as safe, was abused. When users clicked the event to see current news and updates, trolls had invaded with links to “TheAntiMedia.org” and the aforementioned Gateway Pundit and 4chan posts reporting Danley to be the shooter. Facebook also responded with an apology, stating:

“Our Global Security Operations Center spotted the post this morning and removed it. However, its removal was delayed, allowing it to be screen captured and circulated online. We are working to fix the issue that allowed this to happen in the first place and deeply regret the confusion this caused.”

Unfortunately in this day and age, no topic and no tragedy is off-limits for the internet- anything and everything can be politicized. While we can hope that Google, Facebook, and Twitter get better at removing the misinformation, it’s ultimately up to us to look at the news with a skeptical eye until it is fact-checked by multiple reputable sources.

8 comments

  1. This topic has confused me for a while. It’s like all the adults who told me that Wikipedia was unreliable are now using Facebook viral posts for their news. I always felt that I could spot fake news fairly easily but maybe that’s the problem. If a fake news story confirms your beliefs or value system, I’m sure its harder to spot as fake news. Somewhere along the line I’m sure I’ve been guilty of believing a fake news story because I wanted it to be true.

  2. I was actually going to write my blog post on the same thing this week, but you beat me to it! We live in an interesting time where everyone has access to information / news sources at every second of the day and its maddening to see how people have taken advantage of this and purposefully post incorrect information.

  3. Really nice post. I suspect that we will end up discussing this at length tonight (and we’ll cover it in greater depth next week). I’m not sure the problem is isolated to the alt-right, but it’s a greater problem of SM giving people the opportunity to share information faster than it can be verified. Even professional news outlets (on all sides) get burned by this from time to time.

  4. The events the other day were extremely horrific. We live in a world where it is extremely difficult to stop an attack by a lone wolf on a soft target. But after an event such this has taken place you see many people foaming at the mouth to change it in a way to promote there cause. Hillary Clinton took to twitter less then 12hrs after the event to push her agenda about gun control.

    “Imagine the deaths if the shooter had a silencer, which the NRA wants to make easier to get”

    A suppressor (which she references as a silencer) muffles the sound for the shooter. Targets are still able to hear the audible sound of the bullet unless the shooter is using a subsonic round.

    We want to get as much information out at possible, but we also need to let authorities to do an investigation. First reports are never going to be 100% accurate. There will be a delay before accurate reports can be released. Take for example the shooting in Dallas. People identified a man with an AR, strapped to his back, during the protests as the shooter. When that man saw his image on TV he immediately called the authorities and turned himself in to show that he was not the threat.

  5. Eric, thank you for addressing this! I’m excited to hear tonight’s discussion as this is a major problem our generation and generations to come will have to deal with- especially because of how heavily we rely on these platforms to get real time updates.

    I’m not sure if you saw this on twitter but Julia MacDonald and I commented on this new AI feature that will make producing and spreading Fake News that much easier and much more convincing. Very scary!

  6. Eric, you bring up a very relevant topic regarding the power and negative affects of social media platforms. Reverting back to two weeks ago, our discussion of Formspring-like platforms (which are anonymous), it’s interesting to see that even with a name the problem is not solved. People always find loop holes to re-identify themselves online without understanding the impact they are causing, especially during these tragic times.

  7. Your post brings up an important question — who should be responsible for moderating this content? Should all of it fall on the companies? If it’s up to us to be skeptical, as you say, how can we better educate ourselves about the trappings of false reports/abuses (especially in the case of those who are well-intentioned)?

  8. This is a very important topic, so I am glad it was discussed both here and in class. It is hard to believe that people are out there starting this fake news, that often goes more viral than the real news. In a crisis situation like that of Las Vegas, Twitter, Facebook, and Google, whether we like it or not, are among the first places people go to check for news.

    In class, we discussed that the news on Twitter is among the most reliable within ~4 hours of the event happening and shifts to be among the worst after that time frame. It is scary to see how links such as the 4chan mentioned above grew in popularity so quickly. On the other side, Google’s follow-up statement is encouraging because it stated that the algorithms in place actually corrected the most popular news to be also accurate.

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