The Vicious Circle of 4chan’s Mass-Shooting Hoaxes

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Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Mass shootings have become such a depressingly regular occurrence that the stories that follow them can be predicted almost immediately. Someone will argue that tragedy shouldn’t be politicized. Someone will question the reasons we label some killers “terrorists” and others not. Someone will point out the legal loopholes that allow guns to be purchased more or less freely in the U.S.

One newer and particularly grim post-shooting mile marker is the hoax — the misidentified shooter, the incorrectly labeled photograph, the fake story that spreads after the shooting. Early this morning, in the hours after the mass killing at a country-music festival in Las Vegas, the continually inept right-wing blog Gateway Pundit misidentified an innocent man as the shooter based on errant 4chan speculation.

Online hoaxes are obvious targets for journalists: malicious lies that demand debunking by people with the platforms and resources to demonstrate that they’re not true. It’s almost a relief, in an increasingly fraught online news environment, to find a project so morally clear and reportorially straightforward, and you’ll often see outlets package big lists of myths, lies, and hoaxes soon after the shooting.

But as is often the case in online media, things that seem clear and straightforward often aren’t. In performing the service of fact-checking and error-correction, media outlets sometimes inadvertently give the hoax-pushing trolls exactly what they’re looking for: attention. This is hardly a new concern, but it is worth reexamining the impulse to preempt hoaxers before their claims gain traction.

“After every single goddamn shooting in this country, the same news cycle emerges from it. Every single time,” Whitney Phillips, a scholar of internet culture who’s currently researching media coverage of trolls, told me today. “I’ve been studying this for ten years now, and I have absolutely no doubt that the reason these same manipulations unfold around these tragedies is because they work, like clockwork. And they can set their clocks to a certain journalistic response, and that’s why they do it.”

It’s easy to assume that the purpose of spreading hoaxes is to fool people, and that debunking the hoaxes disarms them. But hoaxers on 4chan and other troll sites tend to spread misinformation as a way of getting attention from media — and therefore accruing a kind of power, simply by placing themselves near the center of a giant news story. 4chan, Phillips said, “has made sure it is reported as being integral to these tragedies over the last ten years.”

Just as 4chan has attention-economy incentives to push hoaxes, so, too, do media outlets have their own incentives to cover hoaxes — both institutional (debunking lies is a core mission of journalism) and economic (flooding the zone with breaking-news coverage is a good way to draw an audience). There’s now a blueprint for tragedy: Something bad happens, and outlets immediately start searching for hoax attempts in order to preempt them. Because it’s consistently been the source of misinformation (and, very rarely, legitimately relevant information) about mass shootings and other tragedies, 4chan knows that reporters will attend to it in the wake of breaking news, in the hopes of debunking whatever hoaxes it spreads. But this sort of preemptive hoax coverage has helped create a vicious circle, Phillips said, in which hoax attempts now proliferate because trolls know that the media is scoping them out, and the media scopes out hoaxes because it knows trolls will proliferate them.

Worst of all, and setting the motivations of hoaxers aside, even calling attention to hoaxes can help spread them. “More than anything else, what factors into the spread of false information is reporters covering it. Something can still spread, but having a giant platform lend credibility, or to provide an even larger platform, that really is a huge turning point,” Phillips asserted. “It’s not that a hoax can’t exist and circulate within certain platforms without mainstream intervention, but they’re not going to become household names until you get mainstream media helping to amplify. They’re a significant and critical part of the cycle.”

This leaves journalists in a bind. Reporting on hoaxes is obviously necessary — but in a rush to counteract bad information, the media can end up amplifying it. Even information clearly labeled and annotated as a hoax can make its way into the hands of bad actors or readers who are just plain ignorant. “Reporting on these hoaxes takes something that otherwise would have had a comparatively smaller audience, if it had one at all, and transform it into something big, and in the process, newsworthy,” Phillips says.

“It’s not that there’s an injunction against reporting on these things, I just feel like people need to step away from their machine for the first six or eight hours and see what is worth talking about. That time could make a huge difference in the lives of people affected by this.”

The problem — as we saw today — is that the hoaxes can proliferate across much bigger platforms in much less time. The 4chan thread misidentifying the shooter was briefly a “Top Story” in Google results when searching for the man’s name — a bizarre, algorithmically decided placement that caused a 4chan thread to appear as a legitimate news source.

(Asked about the placement of the 4chan story in the search results, a Google spokesperson emailed, “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.”)

So what are journalists supposed to do? To some extent, the lesson of this shooting is that any hand-wringing by Establishment media about its relationship to trolls is already beside the point. Reporters no longer control the pace or scale of stories: Google and Facebook do, and the hucksters and hoaxers who are most skilled at taking advantage of those platforms will set the terms of coverage without any input from dedicated and responsible reporters. The problem with debunking hoaxes isn’t just that it inadvertently spreads them, it’s also that debunking carries almost no weight when Facebook and Google will determine what consumers see. Ultimately, what journalists need more than a strategy for dealing with 4chan hoaxes is a strategy for dealing with the automated programs determining what rises to the top. Otherwise, they don’t have the power to change anything.

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The Vicious Circle of 4chan’s Mass-Shooting Hoaxes