In the early hours of the morning as reports were coming in about the mass shooting in Las Vegas, some of the largest websites in the world were distributing unverified claims about the attack.
Google, which was running reports from 4chan in some of its search queries as a top story, explained to us what went wrong… and how it enabled some false information from one of the web’s shadier corners to land as a top result.
Users on 4chan had misidentified the shooter as a man named Geary Danley, and that misidentification made the rounds on the internet, leading to false claims about the gunman and incorrect reports of his motivations.
The 4chan search result was only appearing for queries that included the name [geary danley] but did not appear for general queries related to the shooting, according to a spokesperson. And it only represented what the spokesperson called a small number of queries.
The 4chan results appeared in the “Top Stories” section of Search, the spokesperson explains, which Google uses to highlight breaking news and includes content from both news sites and the web.
The search engine picked up the 4chan story from the broader web, and not from anything it ran in its Google News site, according to the spokesperson.
Google said that 15 percent of searches that Google sees every day are new and that before the 4chan story broke there weren’t many stories around the name “Geary Danley.” So when the 4chan story began to circulate, it instantly rose to the top of Google’s Top Stories section for this set of queries.
Google explained that it uses a number of signals to determine how results are ranked — which include both the relative authority of a source as well as the timeliness of the information. The company tries to strike a balance between the two when it presents information. This time, it clearly got the balance wrong.