Conspiracies hound teen shooting survivors

Clickbait: David Hogg, 17, has become the focus of several conspiracy theory videos on YouTube.

Should “trending” be abolished ? This week, a conspiracy theory which falsely claimed that a survivor of a school shooting was an actor became the number one trending video on YouTube.

Student journalist David Hogg has surely had the longest week-and-a-half of his life. Last Wednesday he survived a mass shooting at his high school in Parkland, Florida. Every day since — while his community holds funerals for 17 students and teachers — he and a group of his surviving classmates have been giving countless media interviews, organising protests, and trying to get stricter gun control laws passed in their state.

Now, online conspiracy theorists are accusing him of making it all up.

More specifically, he is accused of being a “crisis actor”. This is a common term among right-wing conspiracists, referring to the idea that people are paid to pose as survivors in the aftermath of atrocities. They are said to be part of a sinister plot to take guns away from ordinary people. Some go as far as to suggest that the atrocities themselves are also a hoax, or a “false flag” — meaning they were organised as an excuse to push a left-wing agenda.

All this is clearly untrue — but a surprisingly common theory. On Tuesday, an aide to a Republican senator in Florida was fired for suggesting that the students are actors.

On Wednesday, a week after the shooting, a video of Hogg began to rack up views on YouTube. It used footage from an unrelated media interview back in August, and was captioned “DAVID HOGG THE ACTOR.” Within a few hours, it had become YouTube’s number one trending video, with over 200,000 views.

When journalists began reporting on the story, YouTube deleted the video for violating its policy on harassment and bullying. It “should never have appeared in Trending”, a spokesperson said.

So why did it?

It is all down to the site’s algorithm. This is the automated process which decides which videos to promote, taking in factors like the number of views, the rate at which those views are growing, and how long ago a video was posted. Although last year YouTube said it would prioritise trustworthy sources, in this case the system was fooled by the use of news footage.

Trend of days

We should forget about “trending” content all together, say some. It is meaningless — no one knows how the algorithms work, and yet everyone is trying to game the system anyway. Once something is labelled “trending”, it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For big sites like Facebook and YouTube, this is a recipe for disturbing and dangerous content.

We should not change how social media works just because of a few bizarre conspiracy theorists, say others. The majority of trending content is fun, interesting or important. Sites like YouTube should keep learning from these incidents and refining their algorithms — but not let a few bad apples ruin it for everyone else.

You Decide

  1. Are “trending” videos, stories and hashtags a useful part of social media?
  2. Why do some people believe in conspiracy theories?

Activities

  1. Go to YouTube, and look at its current list of trending videos. Discuss as a class: Are they useful, interesting or funny? Do they deserve to be promoted by YouTube? What do they tell you about the website and its users?
  2. In groups, design a social media app that you think would solve some of the problems people have online. Present your ideas to the class.

Some People Say...

“History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy.”

Zbigniew Brzeziński

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The students who have been prominent in the media are not actors; they are young people who survived a traumatic event, and were inspired to become gun control activists as a result. However, conspiracy theories often flare up around mass shootings. Similar accusations were made after the Sandy Hook shooting at an elementary school in 2012, and a shooting in Las Vegas last year.
What do we not know?
Whether YouTube will change its algorithm in response to the latest controversy. Although it has deleted many of the videos targeting David Hogg, the problems are not restricted to this shooting; it has also been criticised for promoting videos whice encourage terrorism, feature a dead body, and deliberately scare children. It is unclear whether such incidents are mistakes.

Word Watch

David Hogg
A 17-year-old student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a mass shooting took place on February 14th. He initially gained media attention for interviewing his classmates on camera while the incident was still ongoing.
Mass shooting
The suspect, Nikolas Cruz, was an ex-student at the school. Seventeen people died.
Protests
The students have set up a campaign called Never Again, and are organising a march on Washington next month.
Gun control laws
The Florida Senate vote against a bill to ban assault rifles earlier this week.
Unrelated
Hogg filmed an argument with a lifeguard on the beach that went viral last year, and was interviewed about it on CBS Los Angeles.
Algorithm
YouTube is very secretive about how the algorithm actually works. However, we know that it relies on artificial intelligence and can tailor recommendations to an individual.
Disturbing
It has not even been two months, for example, since Logan Paul’s video featuring a dead body also trended on YouTube.