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.
Also, apparently Google is putting 4chan threads in their top story unit now? So, the number one hit for his name is a /pol/ thread. pic.twitter.com/OYwW6pbWvy
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) October 2, 2017
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.