The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

YouTube promoted a video that falsely attacked a Parkland student. How did this happen?

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Saturday, David Hogg, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks at a rally calling for more gun control three days after the shooting at his school. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

Conspiracy theories always arrive after a mass shooting in America. The Parkland school massacre was no different.

On Wednesday morning, a video purporting to support one of those false theories — targeting a teenage survivor of the school shooting that left 17 people dead — was listed as the top trending item on YouTube. As of Wednesday morning, the clip had more than 200,000 views.

The video was simply a news report from the summer before the massacre, in which David Hogg happened to appear. In recent days, Hogg, 17, has become one of the faces of March For Our Lives, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student initiative responding to the shooting they survived. But a caption that appeared alongside the video’s thumbnail and title on YouTube’s trending page on Wednesday, claimed that the video showed “DAVID HOGG THE ACTOR…”

We’re used to experiencing mass shootings online. But Parkland brought us into the classroom.

And that is a clear reference to a viral, false conspiracy theory that Hogg is actually a paid “crisis actor.” The “crisis actor” is a mainstay of any false-flag theory about mass shootings; basically, the claim is that gun-control advocates send in actors to pretend to be victims in order to push for stricter gun laws.

Hogg has denied that he was paid to speak out against guns after one of his former classmates opened fire in his high school. “I’m not a crisis actor,” Hogg told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday. “I’m someone who had to witness this and live through this, and I continue to be having to do that.”

YouTube has since taken down the video. “This video should never have appeared in Trending,” a spokesman said in a written statement to The Washington Post. “Because the video contained footage from an authoritative news source, our system misclassified it. As soon as we became aware of the video, we removed it from Trending and from YouTube for violating our policies. We are working to improve our systems moving forward.”

Despite more than a year of increased scrutiny on the social media companies whose platforms have previously helped conspiracy theories and misinformation to go viral, the Hogg video is evidence that viral falsehoods still benefit from the algorithms that define many of our experiences online.

The news report was unrelated to the shooting: CBS Los Angeles did a piece in August about an altercation between one of Hogg’s friends and a lifeguard on a California beach. Hogg, who was spending the summer in L.A., filmed the dispute and was interviewed about it.

It’s evidence of nothing more than Hogg’s location this summer, and that he sometimes carries around a device with a camera on it. But in the hands of the conspiracy theorists, it became “evidence,” circulated to call into question anything Hogg or his friends said or did. Its popularity on YouTube came from that context, and YouTube’s algorithms were not able to catch it.

YouTube, like most social platforms, uses algorithms to show you new content that you’re likely to watch and share. And conspiracy videos have benefited from that infrastructure, helping to promote those false narratives to people who visit YouTube for news. After the mass killing at a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., last November, for instance, a video labeled as “Top News” in YouTube’s search results for the gunman peddled a variety of conspiracy theories.

Although YouTube has made changes to emphasize more mainstream news outlets in search results recently, that tweak appears to have a limited effect. On Wednesday, even after YouTube had removed the trending conspiracy video, some of the top search results for “David Hogg” on YouTube included multiple videos targeting the student, including “Who is David Hogg? / FBI & Project MockingBird Are DONE! / NSA Has Proof,” and “After Blaming Trump, School Shooting Survivor David Hogg’s Dirty Secret Was Just Exposed.”