Before 64-year-old retiree Stephen Paddock was identified as the suspect who killed 59 and maimed 527 others in Las Vegas Sunday night, rumors fueled by trolling site 4Chan emerged misidentifying the shooter as a Facebook user named Geary Danley. Google, YouTube and Facebook helped to spread the rumors, particularly after 4Chan claimed that Danley was an anti-Trump liberal and registered Democrat.
Concerned users published screenshots from Google showing the search engine's 'Top stories' including 4Chan articles on the night of the shooting. The claim that Danley was the killer also spread on Facebook itself, its 'Safety Check' page, meant to filter unproven claims and non-credible sources, promoting a story claiming that the shooter had 'Trump-hating' views.
There are at least 6 4chan threads workshopping the narrative that Geary Danley and his family are dangerous leftists happening right now pic.twitter.com/AzbZ9XpIn9— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) October 2, 2017
Other viral Facebook fake news posts continued the trend, some purporting that the shooter was a member of militant self-styled anti-fascist group Antifa. Another claim, suggesting that a man and woman were escorted away by security after threatening people that they would be killed just before the shooting, also went viral, appearing in at least one major tabloid.
On the other side of the political spectrum, conservatives accused leftists of spreading rumors that Paddock had right-wing affiliations, with Twitter users calling a presumed fake Stephen Paddock Twitter account a "leftist deception operation." That trolling operation, if real, proved to be far less successful than the claims that the shooter was a leftist.
Other rumors were also spread, one claiming that Paddock had converted to Islam. That claim was picked up and spread by at least one UK politician. The FBI said there was no evidence behind that claim. Others still insisted that the shooting was a 'deep state hit,' with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his supporters picking up on that narrative.
Soon after the shooting, video sharing site YouTube was flooded with clips suggesting that Stephen Paddock had been spotted at anti-Trump rallies, leading to complaints that it too was part of the misinformation machine surrounding the Las Vegas massacre.
Google was forced to apologize for the flawed algorithm which allowed 4Chan articles to replace relevant results in its searches. Facebook also released a statement, but stopped short of apologizing, explaining instead that the false reports' were flagged for removal, but that this process was temporarily delayed.
Amid the political infighting, social media users fed up with the bickering urged their fellow countrymen to stop the partisan name-calling, adding that Paddock's actions, not his political affiliations, were what made the attack so heinous.
Stephen Paddock is a terrorist. Right, left, center, Muslim, Christian, Athiest, white, brown or purple...he is a TERRORIST!#PrayingforVegas— K. (@Kandco_10) October 2, 2017
Fake News a Growing Problem
Speaking to Radio Sputnik, social media expert Zoe Cairns said that it was inevitable that trolls will attempt to spread fake news and rumors about viral trends, because they know they can get exposure which they can monetize.
According to Cairns, the problem for companies like Facebook and Google, notwithstanding any anti-fake news algorithms they might have, is that "they're trying to police every single post that goes out," which is "quite difficult." The issue, she said, is that "algorithms can't detect every single post that goes out."
Ultimately, Cairns argued that it all comes down to education. "We need to be educating people that not everything they see online is true. And we need to be educating where we find our research, so people stop sharing fake news," thereby preventing trolls from getting the exposure they're looking for.