Conspiracy Theories Surrounding Yesterday’s Train Wreck

This morning’s opinion column from Poynter’s Jim Warren is below.

Conspiracy theories run amok after fatal Virginia accident

The National Transportation Safety Board deals with plane crashes, train derailments, pipeline accidents, highway calamities, marine mishaps and now, thanks to Facebook, fake news. It’s a real case of garbage in, garbage out as the NTSB investigators descend on Virginia.

As the Daily Beast lays outWednesday’s Amtrak crash in Virginia may be the first prompting scrutiny not just of a conductor and a nearby garbage truck but maybe, just maybe also the “People Are Saying” slice of Facebook’s Trending News feature. The feature “prominently surfaced several conspiracy theories about Wednesday’s Amtrak crash pushed by personal accounts, alleging a ‘false flag’ attack by ‘commie-lib resisters’ or Hillary Clinton herself.” (Note to Sean Hannity: This is grist for one of those marathon opening monologues of yours.)

“For users logged out of Facebook, ‘People Are Saying’ is the only section that surfaces on the topic page for the Amtrak crash in Charlottesville that left one dead and two others injured. The train was carrying Republican members of Congress heading to a retreat. The one death and two serious injuries were reportedly sustained by the people in a truck hit by the oncoming train.”

“I want to know if (House Intelligence Committee Chairman) Rep. Devin Nunes was on this train and how Hillary still has the power to order these kinds of strikes,” reads one post, affixed to an ABC News story. Hannity will surely figure this out, along with links to The New York Times, Rachel Maddow, the ACLU and Kendrick Lamar.

Facebook is struggling with its other-wordly success and influence, not to mention its much-criticized reluctance to give over too much influence to others in what winds up on its platform. It prefers that “the community” self-police and, to that end, will entrust “the community” with rating news sources.

What is the latest Amtrak-inspired unseemliness amount to when it comes to online garbage? Well, it forces one to again think of the scourge of digital deceit and the roles of Facebook, Google and Twitter in dealing with — or not dealing with — their communities of occasional idiots and trolls. Some of that is well summarized here in a report — yes, tidily titled “Digital Deceit” — from New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington

“Very often at the intersection of technology and media, fixing one problem merely gives rise to a new problem. Facebook may have layered so many solutions on top of one another that we can’t dig our way back to the underlying truth!” says Owen Youngman, who holds the Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

(To that end, he touts Siva Vaidhyanathan’s forthcoming book, “Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Has Disconnected Citizens and Undermined Democracy,” since “I expect him to scope the problem, and explain a path forward, better than anyone else.”

“To moderate an enormous and endless flow of content in real time, FB is trying to develop automated systems vs. hiring expensive human editors. This example shows how hard it is to build bulletproof algos. Clearly FB ain’t there yet,” says Alan Mutter, a San Francisco-based media and tech analyst who also teaches journalism in the graduate program at the University of California at Berkeley.

“Yes, it illustrates limits of fb’s tech, and why they would be better off hiring more humans to sift through the site (which they are doing but grudgingly),” emails Peter Kafka, a great tech reporter with Recode.

“On the other hand fb trending is a minor fb feature. Basically desktop only, and fb is a mobile platform. It’s what’s in the feed that counts, and that’s where fb is rightly concentrating with its overhaul.”

We await Hannity, who obliges President Trump with his pro bono counsel, to perhaps assist the NTSB, if not Facebook, and at least bring Hillary to justice. A secretive star chamber proceeding would presumably be held in the dining car of a New York-Washington Metroliner with black drapes on the windows and Nunes serving as judge, with both a verdict and untrustworthy coverage on “People Are Saying” assured before the train arrives.

Meanwhile, Facebook stock hit a record high after reporting earnings up due to very steep (40 percent) advertising price hikes. Moral of story: Fake news and fat earnings can go hand in hand. Inspiring, isn’t it?