Bots. Conspiracy theories. Bullying. We’re seeing it all.
Want a perfect example of the kind of content challenges Facebook and Twitter are up against? Just look at what happened over the past few days in the aftermath of the mass shooting last week in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 dead and has reignited discussion about gun control in America.
In the week since, we’ve seen the worst social media has to offer.
Russian bots on Twitter tried to create animosity among critics and advocates of the Second Amendment. High school students who survived the shooting have been mocked online for standing up to politicians and calling for gun control. And now conspiracy theories are circulating on Facebook and Twitter to try and tear down those same students, calling them “crisis actors” and suggesting they’re puppets for liberal politicians.
What we’ve learned from Parkland is that, even in the wake of tragedy, divisive and troubling content still thrives on social media platforms. No one is safe from mockery and ridicule, including children and teenagers. And it’s not entirely clear what anyone can do about it.
Here’s one example: Conservative political commentator and author Dinesh D’Souza mocked grieving Parkland High School students on Twitter.
Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs https://t.co/Vg3mXYvb4c
— Dinesh D’Souza (@DineshDSouza) February 20, 2018
Here’s another, calling Parkland student David Hogg — who has been identified as one of the most vocal and visible students from the school — an “attention whore.”
The tweets are insensitive and embarrassing. Are they against Twitter’s user guidelines? Probably not. But Twitter is full of tweets like these, stuff that feels gross or mean or uncomfortable, but doesn’t merit any formal action from the company because it’s not necessarily threatening or abusive.
This is how absurd, gaslighting “crisis actor” theories go viral.
One @facebook post from this person has 111,000+ shares. Another has 23,000.
This is one person, two posts.
Imagine the millions and millions of people crackpot theories like this are reaching and influencing. pic.twitter.com/VU7cKCJhXq
— Micah Grimes (@MicahGrimes) February 20, 2018
It’s one of the tough challenges Facebook and Twitter deal with, and one of the reasons social media can feel like such an ugly and discouraging place.
We are KIDS – not actors. We are KIDS that have grown up in Parkland all of our lives. We are KIDS who feared for our lives while someone shot up our school. We are KIDS working to prevent this from happening again. WE ARE KIDS.
— Jaclyn Corin (@JaclynCorin) February 20, 2018
We’ve also seen conspiracy theories run rampant. One Facebook user posted that Hogg was a “crisis actor” and not an actual Parkland student. The conspiracy post was supposedly shared more than 110,000 times in six hours, according to a screenshot from NBC News’s Micah Grimes. (It appears that Facebook has since removed the offending account.)
This other Facebook video, which calls Hogg a “crisis actor scumbag,” has more than 20,000 views. Even the President’s son, Donald Trump Jr, liked a tweet that suggested Hogg was “running cover” for his father, who is apparently a former FBI agent.
The harassment got bad enough that Marco Rubio, the Republican Senator from Florida, had to come out on Twitter in defense of Parkland’s students.
Claiming some of the students on tv after #Parkland are actors is the work of a disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 20, 2018
Part of the problem is that Facebook’s and Twitter’s algorithms are set up to reward posts that receive lots of shares or comments — “engagement” that is considered a signal to show those videos to even more people. Even if Facebook can catch videos on the same day they’re posted, the Hogg video is evidence that misinformation can and will still spread like wildfire before anyone has the chance to take it down.
The Parkland shooting has created a perfect storm for the social media world we now live in. There have been positives — Facebook and Twitter have given high school students an incredible megaphone to come out and push for stricter gun control regulations. Teenagers who might otherwise be ignored are sending messages that are reaching millions and, in some cases, publicly challenging elected officials in an effort to get something done.
— Aly Sheehy (@Aly_Sheehy) February 18, 2018
I couldn’t be prouder to be a member of the #NeverAgain movement. We are receiving an unimaginable amount of support from all over the world and this is just the beginning. This is for the 17. ❤️ #MarchForOurLives
— Sofie Whitney (@sofiewhitney) February 20, 2018
But it’s hard to have to witness the ugly side of social media. And in the wake of tragedy, it looks uglier than ever.