YouTube’s defenses against misinformation just backfired in a big way -- and ended up contributing to baseless speculation online that the Notre Dame cathedral fire resulted from a terrorist attack.
As news organizations and others used the service to broadcast the collapse of the spire in Paris, YouTube's algorithms mistakenly displayed details about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York in "information panels" below the videos.
While these fact-checking tools are designed to counter hoaxes, they likely fed false rumors online, as my colleagues Drew Harwell and Craig Timberg reported. People falsely claimed Muslim terrorists caused the incident, even as Paris officials said the fire was likely due to ongoing renovations and there was no sign of a terrorist attack. And while the boxes noted the "extensive death and destruction" from attacks that took down New York's World Trade Center and killed thousands of people, there appeared to be few injured in the Paris fire.
From BuzzFeed News reporter Ryan Broderick:
I'm so glad we let tech platforms eat the journalism industry.— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) April 15, 2019
Now, I can sit and watch a live stream of Notre Dame burning while YouTube's fake news widget tells me about 9/11 for some reason. pic.twitter.com/FhAtE4DqtB
From journalist James Ball:
As the result of an anti-fake news and misinformation initiative, just to put the cherry on top. https://t.co/B3MUUiYedp— James Ball (@jamesrbuk) April 15, 2019
Technology companies are increasingly promising investments in artificial intelligence and algorithms will be a crucial component of their arsenal of tools to combat violent content, disinformation or other hoaxes. But yesterday’s high-profile mistake — on the heels of another recent failure to quickly stop the spread of violent videos of the terrorist attack in New Zealand last month — underscore how this technology is still error-prone and unreliable.
And it's raising questions about the efficacy of leaving such decisions to machines. “At this point, nothing beats humans,” David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at the New School in New York and a critic of social media companies, told my colleagues. “Here’s a case where you’d be hard pressed to misclassify this particular example, while the best machines on the planet failed.”
Pedro Domingos, a machine-learning researcher and University of Washington professor, told my colleagues he wasn't surprised YouTube's algorithms made such a mistake. Algorithms don't have the comprehension of human context or common sense, which makes them seriously unprepared for news events.
“They have to depend on these algorithms, but they all have sorts of failure modes. And they can’t fly under the radar anymore,” Domingos told Drew and Craig. “It’s not just Whac-a-Mole. It’s a losing game.”
YouTube's mistake is highlights the uphill challenge for companies under pressure from policymakers across the globe as they seek new ways to combat misinformation. YouTube began rolling out the so-called “information panels” to provide factual information about hoaxes in recent months. The computer algorithms likely detected visual similarities between yesterday’s fire and the 9/11 tragedy — which is frequently a target of conspiracy theories on the service. BuzzFeed News reported that the widget appeared on at least three news organizations' streams.
“We are deeply saddened by the ongoing fire at the Notre Dame cathedral,” YouTube said in a statement to my colleagues. “Last year, we launched information panels with links to third-party sources like Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia for subjects subject to misinformation. These panels are triggered algorithmically and our systems sometimes make the wrong call. We are disabling these panels for live streams related to the fire.”
YouTube wasn't the only platform that struggled in its response to the cathedral fire. Twitter also was racing to address the rapid spread of hoaxes and conspiracy theories on its own platform.
Jane Lytvynenko of BuzzFeed News found numerous examples of fake claims about the fire yesterday afternoon on Twitter, including an account impersonating CNN that attributed the fires to terrorists, and a fake Fox News account posted fabricated comments purporting to be from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Lytvynenko reported both those examples were removed.
6. A fake CNN account is spreading a hoax about the cause of the fire. pic.twitter.com/4ehiUJZiFh— Jane Lytvynenko 🤦🏽♀️🤦🏽♀️🤦🏽♀️ (@JaneLytv) April 15, 2019
A Twitter spokesperson told me the company is reviewing reports of disinformation related to the fires. "The team is reviewing reports and if they are in violation suspending them per the Twitter Rules," the spokesperson said. "Our focus continues to be detecting and removing coordinated attempts to manipulate the conversation at speed and scale."
The Verge's Casey Newton noted last night that it didn't appear any of the disinformation immediately went viral. But he said there's still cause for concern.
"And even if you think some level of conspiracy theorizing is inevitable after a catastrophe, it’s possible to wish social media companies didn’t so powerfully enable their spread," Newton wrote.
BITS: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is quitting Facebook and scaling back all of her social media use, my colleague Hamza Shabhan reports. But the New York Democrat who leveraged social media to fuel her political rise still has several active ads on the social network yesterday via her campaign. She also appeared to still be active on Facebook-owned Instagram, where she re-posted a joke about how she is similar to "Game of Thrones" character Jon Snow on her Instagram story.
Ocasio-Cortez is known for using social media to share intimate moments from her life. But she said it is a "public health risk" in a Sunday podcast interview and that the services can cause “increased isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, escapism."
"Ocasio-Cortez, 29, who burst onto the national stage after defeating a high-ranking incumbent, said her departure from Facebook was a 'big deal' because the platform had been crucial to her campaign," Hamza wrote. "She still has accounts on the site, she said, and according to the company’s ad library, her official Facebook account has dozens of active advertisements sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Congress. Among the ads are calls to support her signature Green New Deal, and fundraising pleas to support progressive legislation and to counteract a super PAC aligned against her."
NIBBLES: Uber acknowledged it quietly repaired some of its electric bikes that were having a braking problem similar to Lyft's recently recalled fleet, my colleague Faiz Siddiqui reports. Uber and Lyft both rely on the same Japanese manufacturer for their electric bicycles' braking systems, but Lyft is publicly recalling many of its bikes this week while Uber never previously publicized its changes.
Uber, which operates JUMP bikes, wouldn't say when it made the repairs. Lyft announced its own recall this week after people were falling or slipping off the bikes due to the front wheels locking up.
Long before Lyft grounded the e-bikes it operates this weekend, Uber pulled and modified its JUMP Bikes over the same issue, which sent people flying over the handlebars. So why didn't it tell anyone? https://t.co/WiM8KZUBbe— Faiz Siddiqui (@faizsays) April 16, 2019
"Uber declined to say when it first learned of the issue, when the bikes were retrofitted or why it didn’t publicize the safety change earlier so that Lyft could have taken similar action," Faiz wrote.
Uber and Lyft are both heavily investing in electric bikes, as well as other so-called micromobility services. The ride-hailing giants are locked in fierce competition as Uber prepares for its IPO, following Lyft which began trading publicly late last month.
BYTES: As Facebook made public proclamations about protecting users’ data, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and other top executives were “treating its users’ data as a bargaining chip” in their efforts to consolidate the company’s power, according to an NBC News report by Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar.
“In some cases, Facebook would reward favored companies by giving them access to the data of its users,” they wrote. “In other cases, it would deny user-data access to rival companies or apps.”
NBC News obtained emails, webchats, presentations and media summaries from a trove of thousands of pages of documents stemming from a court case between the social network and the California startup Six4Three. About 400 pages of the 4,000 pages of documents have previously been reported by outlets like the Post.
“For example, Facebook gave Amazon extended access to user data because it was spending money on Facebook advertising and partnering with the social network on the launch of its Fire smartphone,” NBC News wrote. “In another case, Facebook discussed cutting off access to user data for a messaging app that had grown too popular and was viewed as a competitor, according to the documents.” (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post).
Facebook also considered many ways for third-parties to compensate it for data access, including direct payment. Facebook ultimately decided not to sell data access, but instead doled it out to companies that shared their own valuable data or to developers considered “friends” of Zuckerberg. “Facebook denied that it gave preferential treatment to developers or partners because of their ad spending or relationship with executives,” NBC wrote. “The company has not been accused of breaking the law.”
Tech news from the private sector:
-- European Union countries gave final approval to tough new copyright rules yesterday -- yet another example of the bloc's broad crackdown on Facebook and Google, Foo Yun Chee reports for Reuters.
In a move policymakers say is aimed at protecting competition in Europe's $1 trillion creative industry, Google will have to pay publisher for news snippets. Facebook will have to filter out protected content. The platforms will have to sign licensing agreements with artists, journalists and musicians to use their work.
“When it comes to completing Europe’s digital single market, the copyright reform is the missing piece of the puzzle,” the Commission’s president Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement.
More tech news from the public sector: