As thousands of people were watching livestreamed footage of the burning Notre Dame cathedral on YouTube, the video platform showed them an informational panel underneath about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, with text taken from Encyclopedia Britannica.
— Mike Murphy (@mcwm) April 15, 2019
YouTube soon disabled the panels on livestreams related to the fire. “These panels are triggered algorithmically and our systems sometimes make the wrong call,” a spokesperson told Quartz. Quartz asked for clarification on “systems” and will update this post with any comment.
Ironically, the panels are part of a year-old YouTube initiative to fight misinformation on its platform; in this case, they did just the opposite. The panel, which is only available in the United States and South Korea, could have easily created the impression of a terrorist connection, when the cause of the fire is still unknown, and there is currently no indication of any sort of attack. Such a false impression could easily exacerbate the immediate spread of vitriol and falsehoods that occur online in such events:
looks like the notre dame live-streams are already comments cesspools! pic.twitter.com/4tgdPhA1Xr
— Charlie Warzel (@cwarzel) April 15, 2019
The algorithm’s lapse is unsettling for other reasons. For one, it undermines tech platforms’ much publicized fact-checking efforts, which, although vastly insufficient, are one of the few tools we have against the rampant misinformation online. And it wasn’t just a random YouTube livestream—the footage posted by several major news outlets was adorned by the informational panel as well, potentially amplifying the confusion.
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