2017 IN A NUTSHELL
Google Autocompletes Antifa Conspiracy Theory After Texas Massacre
When users search for information on Texas shooter Devin Kelley, Google automatically points them towards a right-wing conspiracy theory with no basis in fact as its top result.
Nearly one full day after a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas left 26 people dead, Google’s autocomplete function pointed users searching for details about the killer to a false conspiracy theory about his motive as its top result.
Devin Kelley killed 26 people and injured 20 at a Texas church on Sunday. Investigators say the mass murder was part of a “domestic situation” and that Kelley had sent threatening to texts to his mother-in-law before the massacre at First Baptist Church.
But when default Google users—those who are logged out of their accounts or using incognito windows in their browsers—search for Devin Kelley nearly 24 hours after the killing, the search bar autocompletes to “Devin Kelley Antifa.”
The Daily Beast was able to replicate the autocomplete on several different computers. Users who are logged in to their accounts may receive different results based on their search histories.
"Autocomplete predictions are algorithmically generated based on users' search activity and interests. Because of this, terms that appear in Autocomplete may be unexpected or unpleasant. In this case, there is great interest in the topic which is being reflected in the tool," a Google spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
"We try to be careful with autocompletions on names, and in this case, our system did not work as intended. We’re currently working on our system for name detection to improve this process moving forward.”
The autocompleted search still resolves to “Devin Kelley Antifa,” even after Google was made aware it was pointing users to a conspiracy theory.
Far-right figures and anonymous websites like 4chan attempted to place blame for the shooting on the left-wing political group Antifa, short for “anti-fascist,” immediately after the attack on Sunday, despite no evidence.
Right-wing agitators like Mike Cernovich pushed out tweets with sentences like “Antifa terror attack?” that received thousands of retweets after the attack, but before the shooter’s identity or his motive were known.
“Photos of Texas shooter is consistent with the profile of an Antifa member,” Cernovich tweeted, based on the physical appearance of Kelley in pictures on Facebook. “This is looking more and more like Antifa terror.” That post received over 2,000 retweets.
InfoWars’ Alex Jones also fueled entirely incorrect speculation, presenting a false choice between “part of Antifa revolution” or “Isis op.”
“Was this part of the Antifa revolution against Christians and conservatives or a Isis op?” he tweeted on Sunday, then followed tweets with a livestream on his conspiracy YouTube channel.
Antifa has served as a stand-in boogeyman for conspiracy theorists on the right. This past weekend, far-right websites and personalities like InfoWars and Jones pushed the conspiracy theory that several anti-Trump protests were actually the beginnings of a violent “Antifa Civil War” conducted by “Antifa Super Soldiers.”
Fox News pushed the violent protest narrative as well, running a graphic on television and an article online saying that the Antifa planned to “overthrow the government.” Violent protests did not happen, and roots of the conspiracy theory were traced back to a joke on Twitter.
On Sunday, the first Google results some users saw for Kelley were factually incorrect information underneath the “Popular on Twitter” banner. Users with names like “Battle Beagle” pushed conspiracies that Kelley was a Bernie Sanders supporter, a Hillary Clinton supporter, a Muslim convert, or a member of Antifa. Kelley’s political leanings are currently unknown.
Many of the Antifa rumors began on 4chan and the Donald Trump subreddit r/The_Donald before migrating over to Twitter, a traditional flightpath for misinformation after a terror attack, according to academic research.
Google has been under increased scrutiny by both the legislators and the American public after the search giant and several other social media companies hosted thousands of popular Russian disinformation accounts during the 2016 election.
Many of the conspiracies pervade Google-owned YouTube, where top search results push false Antifa conspiracies about Kelley.
This story has been updated with a comment from a Google spokesperson.