This is how quickly fake news that exploits tragedy spreads on Facebook

Fake news turns against student activists.
Fake news turns against student activists.
Image: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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Social media companies may be adamant that they’re serious about their battle against fake news, but the aftermath of the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead shows just how far they have to go.

The teenage classmates of the victims have been outspoken about the issue of gun control, both in traditional media and on social platforms. But just as they’ve been able to amplify their voices, they were also quick to experience the powerful forces trying to undermine their stories by spreading lies.  

Fake-news hawkers have been disseminating videos and posts claiming that David Hogg, one of the students who has been speaking to the media, is a “crisis actor.” This draws on the longstanding online conspiracy theory that people are hired to show up where tragedy strikes. By peddling such falsehoods, the posters are trying to undermine the calls for gun control from students. The Facebook, Instagram and YouTube posts spread instantly, reaching hundreds of thousands of people, much like they did during the Las Vegas shooting last year. Here’s an illustration of just how fast this kind of deception can get in front of countless eyeballs:

Here’s another example, which racked up millions of views in a matter of hours:

“Images that attack the victims of last week’s tragedy in Florida are abhorrent. We are removing this content from Facebook,” Mary deBree, head of content policy at Facebook, told Quartz. However, at the time of publication, when you search “David Hogg” on Facebook, and click on “Articles,” some of the top results are still fake news stories.

On Instagram, another type of fake information proliferated right after the shooting, with users creating fake accounts for the alleged perpetrator, which experts worried might lead to a distorted view of the problem, and affect the way people view potential solutions.  

Motherboard reported that, for some time on Feb. 21, a video claiming Hogg was a crisis actor was the most popular clip on YouTube before the site eventually took it down. The company told Quartz its system had “misclassified” the video because it “contained footage from an authoritative news source.” There are, however, many similar videos still floating around YouTube at the time of publication.

It’s unclear where exactly these posts originate from, but shortly after the shooting, researchers at Hamilton 68, a project that tracks Russian influence online, noticed that Russian-linked Twitter accounts started flooding the internet with hashtags related to the incident, along with politically incendiary content. It was much like how bots operated during the presidential election, aiming to sow division among the American public.

The conspiracy theories from unknown sources are boosted by far-right media personalities, such as Dinesh D’Souza, and Alex Jones and his Infowars website, which latched onto the fact that Hogg is the son of a retired FBI agent, spinning a new thread of the story.

Their influence goes beyond the proverbial pot-stirring uncle sharing a sketchy post on his personal Facebook account. An aide to a state lawmaker in Florida sent a reporter emails claiming the students were actors, with a link to a video to bolster his view. He was later fired. Another tweet pushing the mistruths was liked by Donald Trump Jr.