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A false rumor is currently circulating on conservative junk news web sites and social media warning that the loose knit movement of anti-fascist activists known as “Antifa” is planning to launch a civil war in the United States on Nov. 4. We found that on Oct. 4, searching Google for the phrases “Antifa November 4” and “Antifa civil war November” returned results that could serve to confirm this conspiracy theory.
As seen in the screenshots below, the Google search results show a “Top stories” widget with headlines such as “ANTIFA Planning a ‘Civil War’ to Overthrow the US Government” and “Antifa Planning Communist Revolution for America on November 4.”
The “Top Stories” presentation, which includes article thumbnails and recent timestamps, lend the links an air of credibility, as though they are news stories from reputable outlets.
Screen shots collected on October 4, 2017.
The rumor appears to have begun circulating after a traffic-stopping protest in late September on U.S. Route 101 in Los Angeles, staged by the group Refuse Fascism. Heavy.com explores how that event’s promotion of a real plan for a Nov. 4 protest was transformed into the false rumor of an impending civil war. That legitimate story appeared just below the misleading news headlines.
Google and its algorithm became the focus of a lot of criticism last week when those same “Top stories” boxes offered up a story with misinformation about the identity of the Las Vegas shooter from the website 4chan, an online community known to purposefully generate many false stories.
We took a deeper dive into Google’s “Top news” algorithm and how, in the case of this planned Refuse Fascism protest, it may have helped spread misinformation.
How do “Top stories” boxes work?
After the false Las Vegas shooter story, a Google spokesperson told several news outlets that “within hours, the 4chan story was algorithmically replaced by relevant results. This should not have appeared for any queries, and we’ll continue to make algorithmic improvements to prevent this from happening in the future.”
In fact, this is what happened with the “Antifa civil war” search query. We reached out to Google to ask about the misinformation we found for the “Antifa civil war” search in “Top stories,” and they declined to comment. However, by the following day, searches for those same terms did not return any “Top stories” boxes at all, though junk news stories remain at the top of the list of results.
In another statement, Google attempted to shed a little more light on what happened in the 4chan case. According to the company, the “Top stories” algorithm favors recently published content for search terms which are not widely used. So if someone is searching for something unusual or even unique, the search results will feature items in “Top stories” that are “fresh” from all over the web, not just those from whitelisted news sites.
While this particular instance may have seemed nothing more than a digital blip, it may have amplified the spread of misinformation generated by 4chan. If the “Top stories” feature continues to function this way, it could have significant impact on the spread of misinformation.
Imagine a scenario where you decide to use Google to research the veracity of a rumor you have heard elsewhere, perhaps on another social media platform or even offline. Say the rumor, for example, is that a group of masked activists called “Antifa” are planning to wage a civil war on our country starting Nov. 4.
The answer you get from Google is surprising — there are multiple news stories from distinct outlets with headlines that seem to confirm the idea, all featured in the “Top Stories” treatment. Without digging a little deeper, you could easily leave with your paranoia reinforced.
Sifting fact from fiction can often be difficult, which is why Google’s role is critical. In a global survey conducted by the PR firm Edelman, 64 percent said they trusted search engines for their news and information, more than any other source.
“Those boxes at the top of search results can shift opinions by 30 percent,” said Dr. Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. Epstein calls it the “Answer Bot Effect,” and said his research, which has not yet been published, found the mere existence of boxes like the “Top stories” widget can influence people who are trying to form opinions. Seeing such a box can also enhance the effect of confirmation bias — the tendency to believe information that confirms a pre-existing opinion–and push some people over the edge.
He cited the example of Dylann Roof, the white-supremacist mass murderer who in 2015 killed nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof said that Google results appearing under searches for “black on white crime” impacted his worldview.
For many online conspiracies, a Google search is likely to return a fact-check article right near the top of its results, if such an article exists. But until a false claim is debunked, the “Top stories” can have potentially dangerous implications. In this case, considering the violence that has already followed some demonstrations in 2017, the risk is great.
So what are the facts?
Regarding the spectre of “civil war,” here are the facts we have verified: A group called Refuse Fascism is organizing protests starting on November 4th.
Sunsara Taylor, who is with the organization, said they are planning “a mass non-violent political protest.” She said “the misinformation and lies being spread by the alt-right echo chamber about Antifa planning a civil war … are lies through and through.”
Taylor herself does not identify as “Antifa,” but said that the group welcomes protestors from all backgrounds, including those “who identify as Antifa, as well as Hillary supporters, Bernie people …”
Though Taylor and Refuse Fascism do not condone violence, protesters in anarchist “black blocs” who are frequently aligned with the anti-fascist movement have been violent during some past protests.
References to violence against “Antifa” can be found throughout various threads on 4chan and Reddit about Refuse Fascism’s plans to begin protesting on Nov. 4.
One Reddit commenter states “If s**t hits the fan in my town … they’ll need to send the coroner because there are a lot of retired Navy vets who will protect themselves against antifa. Lots purple and green haired gender neutrals will be dead in the streets.”
On 4chan, a commenter posts: “Guess we need to all buy Dodge Challengers then” – a reference to the vehicle used to kill a protester in Charlottesville.
When asked if if there was a concern that misinformation online could incite real violence against them, the Refuse Fascism protesters said their events would go forward as planned. “We are not going to be deterred,” Taylor said. “It does pose a risk, but not acting is riskier.”
Cameron Hickey is an Emmy Award winning journalist, cinematographer and hacker focused on human rights, poverty, and science. He has produced and shot content for the PBS NewsHour, NOVA, Bill Moyers, American Experience, WNET, PBS World, and the New York Times. Hickey lives in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn with his wife and two sons.
Miles O’Brien is a veteran, independent journalist who focuses on science, technology and aerospace.
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