Notre Dame Fire – How Social Media failed its test at fighting misinformation (The Guardian)

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The Notre Dame Cathedral fire presented social media companies with one of the first major tests of their nascent programmes aimed at fighting misinformation in real time – and critics say they failed.

The Guardian reports that once footage of the cathedral burning was uploaded to YouTube by major news providers, anti-misinformation algorithms launched by the video-sharing site last year kicked in. Unfortunately, the algorithms wrongly identified the videos as footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, apparently a result of the prominent plume of smoke common to both videos.

As a result, multiple providers found their videos had been appended with a link to an Encyclopaedia Britannica article about the attacks. The feature is supposed to counter common conspiracy theories about subjects such as the moon landings and whether or not the earth is flat, as well as the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

YouTube apologised for the mistake, saying its systems “sometimes make the wrong call”. Other aspects performed better: a search for Notre Dame is automatically recognised as a search for a news event, pushing videos from legitimate news agencies to the top of the results.

But that has failed to stop misinformation about the fire from raging on the video-sharing site and elsewhere. One video of the flames, with 36,000 views, has had the audio edited to suggest that Islamic observers were crying “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”), in celebration. Another zooms in on a figure apparently wearing a hi-vis vest and hard hat, captioning it as a “Muslim at Notre Dame”.

These have been accompanied by other claims, spread in comments on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and on “independent” media sites, that attempt to suggest the fire was deliberately started. One said it was “suspicious” that “officials have stated there was no work being done and the cathedral was empty”; another tweet, since deleted, claimed to be from someone who knew an employee at the church, and said they had been told it was an act of arson.

There were also tweets from accounts purporting to be news outlets like CNN and Fox News, claiming that the fire was caused by “an act of terrorism”, and spreading false claims about the reaction of American congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

Paris public prosecutor Rémy Heitz said on Tuesday that “nothing indicates” the Notre Dame blaze, which brought the iconic building’s towering spire and roof crashing down, “was a voluntary act”. The cathedral had been undergoing intensive restoration work which firefighters said could be linked to the inferno, investigators said.

As well as outright lies, misinformation was spread in other ways. A 2016 news story about an apparent plot to blow up the church has been widely spread over the past 24 hours, frequently without mentioning that the story is three years old.

This is an excerpt from an article which appeared on The Guardian. 

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