The Notre Dame cathedral fire highlighted YouTube’s difficulty in countering fake news. YouTube’s tool that is supposed to counter misinformation mistakenly linked the fire in Paris to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
YouTube put information on the World Trade Center attacks into information panels below videos of the Notre Dame fire. The algorithm posted it automatically, likely because of visual similarities between the two unrelated events.
By associating the two unconnected tragedies, YouTube unwittingly helped spread misinformation online. People on Twitter falsely claimed Muslim terrorists caused the incident, although Paris officials said the fire was likely due to ongoing renovations and there was no terrorist attack.
A High-Profile Mistake
Ironically, YouTube designed the panels to counter misinformation. Its algorithm automatically places the information panels below controversial or conspiracy-related videos, with short descriptions and links to sources such as Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. For instance, it would place links to the Apollo space program under videos that suggest the moon landing was fake.
YouTube acknowledged the mistake and disabled the panels for live streams on the Notre Dame fire.
The mishap highlights the inadequacies of software programs meant to counter fake news and other forms of misinformation. To protect themselves against fake news attacks, organizations will need to constantly monitor online content and specifically focus on known fake news websites.
Machine-learning experts weren’t surprised at the error. Algorithms lack the comprehension and common sense of humans.
“At this point nothing beats humans,” David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at the New School in New York told The Washington Post. “Here’s a case where you’d be hard pressed to misclassify this particular example, while the best machines on the planet failed.”
“They have to depend on these algorithms, but they all have sorts of failure modes. And they can’t fly under the radar anymore,” Pedro Domingos, a University of Washington researcher, told the Post. “It’s not just Whac-a-Mole. It’s a losing game.”
Fake News Report, Hoaxes Proliferate
Other networks also had their problem with fake news and hoaxes, as BuzzFeed News noted. Far right Facebook influencers tried to blame Muslims for the fire.
A fake Twitter account impersonating CNN spread a hoax that the fire was caused by an act of terrorism. Twitter finally removed the account after more than two hours of bogus tweets.
In a coordinated campaign, dozens of accounts tweeted a link to a 2016 article regarding a car found near Notre Dame with gas tanks and “Arabic documents” inside, giving the false impression the article was recent in an attempt to link it to the fire.
A fake Fox News account, which claims to be a parody, spread falsehoods about the fire, including a fake reaction from Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. The account has since been removed.
The spread of fake news can cause serious problems. It can disrupt society norms, economies, relationships, and elections. Mostly, it is caused by partisans, but the need for effective systems to prevent spread of fake news is obvious. Though algorithms to spot fake news may help, they are far from perfect. At present, only humans can monitor with effectiveness. Social media platforms must have adequate human fact-checking systems. Every concerned citizen must be observant and careful about stories they share on social platforms to avoid inadvertently sharing fake news. That’s especially true of individuals who have any degree of influence, including communications professionals.
Bottom Line: The Notre Dame cathedral fire underscored the shortcomings of YouTube’s automated tool designed to fight fake news and hoaxes. Instead of promoted accuracy, it encouraged unfounded rumors and hoaxes by mistakenly associating the fire to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.