Debates about gun control have dominated media cycles in the wake of this month's Florida school shooting, but a small contingent of extremely vocal social media users attempted to cast doubt on the validity of reports of the massacre.
Conspiracy theorists deployed a series of outlandish hypotheses, including several "false flag" theories, which asserted the entire ordeal was a hoax and that the victims were in fact "crisis actors" (a term that began proliferating on conspiracy forums in 2012) hired to deceive the mass media. Survivors on social media say they were then faced with an onslaught of harassment and threats. Social media companies have employed a handful of strategies in attempts to deal with the claims, according to The New York Times, but may have exacerbated the problem by creating what experts are calling a "conspiracy ecosystem."
Social media researcher Jonathan Albright noticed how searching for terms like "crisis actors" led users down what Washington Post writers Craig Timberg and Drew Harwell described as a "rabbit hole of conspiracies about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the JFK assassination and Pizzagate, the hoax about a supposed child molestation ring run by Democratic Party luminaries out of a Washington pizzeria."
The conspiracy ecosystem was described by Albright as "growing, not only in size but in depth.”
Albright's research, published in a Medium essay, showed how by starting from one search term, YouTube's recommended videos led one down a path of over 9,000 videos which had been watched over 4 billion times. A large portion of the videos purported even more wild and impossible-to-prove conspiracies.
"I hate to take the dystopian route, but YouTube’s role in spreading this 'crisis actor' content and hosting thousands of false videos is akin to a parasitic relationship with the public," writes Albright in the essay. "This genre of videos is especially troublesome, since the content has targeted (individual) effects as well as the potential to trigger mass public reactions."
“It’s not YouTube getting gamed. It’s that YouTube has allowed this to flourish,” Albright concludes. “The Florida videos are now taking people to the larger conspiracy space.”
Both YouTube and individual content creators continue to amass profits from these videos.
YouTube has not offered a comment on the situation.
[Photo: Getty Images]