Texas Public Safety authorities say the Sutherland Springs church shooting appears to have stemmed from a "domestic situation." It's not the first domestic incident involving suspected gunman Devin Kelley. USA TODAY
Minutes after officials identified the shooter in Sunday's Texas church massacre, conspiracy theorists began spreading misinformation online that tied the man to the left-wing movement known as antifa.
Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube helped make those claims real, despite law enforcement officials making no connection between Devin Kelley and the loosely organized antifa movement that sprung into the national spotlight at protests in the past year.
On Sunday, within 30 minutes of Kelley's identification by the Associated Press as the suspect in the shooting at a Texas Baptist church that left 26 dead, posts had cropped up on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google, naming Kelley variously as a member of a pro-Bernie Sanders group, as a supporter of Hillary Clinton, as a recent convert to Islam, and as a radical Alt-left supporter with possible antifa ties.
That rapid surfacing of information with little grounding beyond speculation and assumption has again thrown into question whether Google, Twitter and Facebook do enough to flag false information when it surfaces in the chaotic aftermath of a disaster — as it did in the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting.
If you Googled Kelley's full name, results of tweets that linked Kelley with antifa showed up on Google's search page as "Popular on Twitter" results, directly below its top stories.
A day later, those tweets had stopped surfacing. But typing Devin Patrick Kelley into the Google search engine, the third "Instant Search" result was still "Devin Patrick Kelley antifa." A similar search on Google's YouTube, after legitimate news sources like CBS and CNN, presented an entry from Patriotic Beast, with a video called "Devin Patrick Kelley Antifa Confirmed, Proof."
Just last month YouTube said it had changed its search algorithm to promote videos from more mainstream news outlets in search results after people looking for details on the Las Vegas shooting were served up conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Google said in a statement to USA TODAY Monday that the Twitter results "are changing second by second and represent a dynamic conversation that is going on in near real-time" and noted that they appear after news sources, including Top Stories. "We’ll continue to look at ways to improve how we rank tweets that appear in Search," Google said in a statement.
In a statement, YouTube said it was investing in changes to YouTube search that provide authoritative results when people use YouTube to search for news.
Several far right standard-bearers made the link between antifa and the shooter in the hours after the shooting in posts that were widely shared. Mike Cernovich, conservative blogger and author of Gorilla Mindset, Sunday night tweeted that photos of the suspect were "consistent with profile of antifa member. This is looking more and more like antifa terror." It was retweeted 1,565 times.
Alex Jones, founder of InfoWars.com and a proponent of many conspiracy theories including the government's involvement in the Oklahoma city bombing and the 9/11 terror attacks, posted several tweets Sunday about the incident. In one he posed the question, “Was this part of Antifa revolution against Christian and conservatives or a Isis op?”
Later Jones tweeted: "Antifa follower Devin Kelley identified as Texas church shooter! Dressed in all black... left now celebrating!" (2,700 retweets) and subsequently, "Antifa killer attacks Texas church killing 26 fulfilling the groups dream for violent revolutionary action!"
Several tweets mentioned Kelley's Facebook page, which allegedly showed multiple posts tying him to antifa. But Antifa United posted on its own page late Sunday that the posts were fake.
Facebook said in a statement to USA TODAY that it was increasing its investment in its strategy to "combat misinformation. ... We've also created tools to help people trust what they're reading, such as making it easier for people to report misleading stories and providing additional information about an article, including information about the publisher and the types of stories published. ”
Jonathon Morgan, a former digital advisor to the Obama-era State Department, and outspoken critic of social media’s presentation of news, said in a tweet that Google fails to serve its customers when it recommends conspiracy theorists as legitimate info sources in the aftermath of a tragedy.
He believes the companies are taking the situation “more seriously” today than 6 months ago, but “they’re not really owning up to the problem. It runs much deeper than they’re willing to admit.”
He tweeted a screenshot showing Google search results for Devin Patrick Kelley, which directed users to the Twitter feed of Info Wars editor Paul Watson.
Texas Department of Public Safety official Freeman Martin on Monday said Kelley's motivation did not seem motivated by religion or investigated as terrorism, but instead stemmed from a domestic dispute.
Justin Hendrix, the executive director of the NYC Media Lab, and a critic of the Trump administration, said he saw Morgan's tweet how Google was directing those searching “Devin Patrick Kelley” to InfoWars. He went to Google himself and found several other various examples of misinformation surfacing in the "Popular on Twitter," including that Kelley was a Muslim convert.
“In what situations is it better to have no information than some information?" he told USA TODAY. "In the traditional news media that is something we have always believed that sometimes it’s better not to provide information that it is to provide wrong information. But these mechanisms (Google, Twitter, etc.) are not designed to do that. There’s an empty hole. It has to be filled and it will be filled.”