Twitter's fake news problem is getting worse

From Engadget - February 17, 2018

As is common in these cases, many of the initial fake tweets misidentified the gunman. A few tweets from a fake Bill O'Reilly account, for example, claimed that there were two shooters (one of whom was the actual gunman, Nikolas Cruz) and the other was Sam Hyde. Hyde is a comedian whose photo was also circulated as the alleged shooter in previous tragedies like the ones in San Bernardino and Las Vegas. At this point it's a well-known internet trope.

Others were also falsely accused of being the attacker, including German YouTuber DrachenLord and 24-year-old Marcel Fontaine (who was misidentified as being part of the "Antifa" movement). Some tweets combined false claims of lost relatives with photos of people who were not involved in the shooting. One tweet even showed a photo of conservative radio host Bill Mitchell, claiming he was his missing grandfather.

There are 2 fake tweets circulating today attributed to me. They are doctored versions of tweets I sent while trying to tell the stories of victims and survivors -- important stories that need to be heard. I did not ask if the shooter was white nor ask for photos of dead bodies.

Alex Harris (@harrisalexc) February 15, 2018

There were two other hoaxes, however, that seemed a little different. One doctored the tweets of Miami Herald reporter Alex Harris to make it appear she was asking for photos of dead bodies and if the shooter was white. Another included a fake screenshot of a BuzzFeed article with the headline "Why We Need To Take Away White People's Guns Now More Than Ever" written by a "Richie Horowitz", a name that seems chosen specifically to incite anti-semitic sentiment. (That byline is next to a photo of a real BuzzFeed reporter whose name is actually Salvador Hernandez. The hoax was doctored with a screenshot of a real article entitled "At Least 17 People Are Dead In A Florida School Shooting").

The specific targeting of journalists is not something Jane Lytvynenko, a BuzzFeed reporter who initially reported on the above hoaxes, has seen before. "It's definitely a new kind of situation," she told Engadget. Harris, the Miami Herald reporter whose tweets were faked, told BuzzFeed News that she's since faced a barrage of abuse and hate online. The fake tweets appeared not only on Reddit but also a white nationalist forum, and whenever she tweeted at someone for a story, people would respond saying "Do not talk to her, she's racist." She does not know for sure if it had any impact, but there's a possibility it might have scared off some people from talking to her.

It's just further evidence that Twitter's fake news problem is getting worse, not better. After all, Twitter's very nature is to spread information at lightning speed, with little to no oversight. And ironically, it is this quality that brought Twitter to prominence in the first place. - There's a plane in the Hudson. I am on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.

Janis Krums (@jkrums) January 15, 2009

One of Twitter's defining moments was when Janis Krum tweeted about U.S. Airways Flight 1549 landing in the Hudson River on January 15th 2009 -- he was the first to have reported it, and the tweet soon went viral. "It changed everything," Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey told CNBC in 2013. "Suddenly the world turned its attention because we were the source of news -- and it was not us, it was this person in the boat using the service." Twitter was no longer just a place for discussing what you had for lunch. It became a place where you could get news from real people experiencing events first-hand, which was often faster than mainstream news.

Twitter was also crucial during the Arab Spring, where protesters in countries like Egypt, Syria and Tunisia used social media platforms to communicate and organize demonstrations. Twitter was also a valuable tool in sharing information with the rest of the world, raising global awareness of the political issues affecting the region. But it's this same speed and lack of central governance that has facilitated the spread of fake news.

By 2016, Twitter was crawling with memes citing fake crime stats, designed to feed right-wing conspiracy theories. Even Donald Trump was fooled by such propaganda. Of course, instead of targetting these bogus news sites, the president applied the phrase "fake news" to mainstream outlets like The New York Times, only fueling the chaos and confusion.

Gateway Pundit circulating a hoax screenshot of BuzzFeed News reporting in aftermath of FL school shooting. Let me be clear, this is fake.

Jon Passantino (@passantino) February 15, 2018

And then there's the very real possibility that fake tweets affected our election. In 2016, Twitter discovered over 2,000 Russia-backed accounts tried to influence the election and clearly succeeded to at least some degree.

Twitter is still being used by bots today. Hamilton 68, a site that tracks Russian influence campaigns on Twitter, noted that the most recent trending tweets from these accounts were shooting-related. The tweets mentioned the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, along with hashtags like "#guncontrol" and "#guncontrolnow." Bret Schafer, a research analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said the goal of these groups is not to advance any particular agenda -- the Kremlin does not care if the US passes gun control laws or not -- but instead to sow discord. "It's just being used as bait, basically," he told Wired.

jack (@jack) February 16, 2018


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